Health Effects of Tanning
Tanning may cause many adverse health impacts, including damage to the skin, eyes, and immune system. UV rays penetrate the superficial layers of the skin, activating melanocytes (Figure 2). These structures release melanogen, which is converted to melanin in the skin. Melanin is the compound that gives tanned skin its color and serves to provide very limited protection (approximately the equivalent of SPF 1-3) to the skin from further sun damage. However, tanning of any kind shows that skin has been exposed to, and damaged by, UV light.
Figure 2: Skin Layers
Acute and long-term effects of exposure to UV light include:
- Erythema (sunburn)
- Eye injuries like cataracts and corneal burns, photokeratitis, photoconjunctivitis
- Pre-cancerous skin growths
- Skin cancer
- Suppression of the immune system
- Toughening and wrinkling of the skin
The US Food and Drug Administration provides further information on the risks of tanning and offers help in recognizing injuries from overexposure. In addition to these acute and long-term health effects, UV exposure can cause photosensitive reactions with abnormal or increased skin sensitivity. The Iowa Department of Public Health provides a list of potential photosensitizing agents.
Ongoing exposure to UV light may cause abnormalities in the DNA structure of skin cells, including mutations that could interfere with regulation of cell division (Figure 3). P53, a tumor suppressing gene, has been found to be inoperable due to such mutations in approximately 50% of skin cancer cases. Both UV-A and UV-B cause damage to the skin and increase the risk of cancer through photochemical damage.
Figure 3: Radiation and Effects
The health effects of tanning, especially through artificial tanning devices, have been assessed through numerous long-term studies. While short-term health effects such as burns are easy to recognize, long-term health impacts, like cancer, may not occur for many years after exposure. Studies of tanning facility users have demonstrated that exposure to UV rays from tanning lamps enhances the risk for skin cancer, including malignant melanoma. More recent studies indicate that the highest risk occurs when the person has been exposed to tanning lamps before the age of 18. Results released by the Mayo Clinic demonstrated an eightfold increase in melanoma in patients aged 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009 among young women, and a fourfold increase among young men. The study also noted that while the lifetime risk of melanoma is greater in males, girls and young women carry greater risk at a younger age. Most importantly, studies suggest the increasing incidence of melanoma is strongly linked to the use of tanning devices.
Health Effects and Vulnerable Populations
One million Americans use tanning facilities each day - 70% of which are Caucasian women age 16 to 49. A disturbing 25% of all teenage girls have used a tanning device. According to a survey done by the CDC, 8.7% of teens age 14 to 17 used indoor tanning devices. Girls in that age group were seven times more likely to use the devices than boys. This age group is of special concern because cells that are changing or in transition are most vulnerable to the mutagenic effects of UV radiation. Evidence indicates that the most vulnerable populations, young people with fair skin, are also the most likely to use tanning devices. In epidemiological studies, the use of tanning facilities has been tied to significant increases in the rate of melanoma, among young women between 18 to 34 years of age.