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March 2015 | Volume 5, Number 3

Tanning Beds

To see Children's of Alabama experts discuss this topic, click here. 

It’s that time of year when students get ready for Spring Break and fun in the sun.  Unfortunately, as many teens begin to trade their winter coats for shorts and t-shirts, they may head to the tanning bed to recreate that warm glow.

In fact, some may think going to a tanning bed is safer than being in the sun, since the exposure time is only about 10 minutes.  However, the experts at Children’s of Alabama say the use of tanning beds is why physicians are treating more and more young people for skin cancer. 

Indoor Tanning vs. Sunlight

The sun’s rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that affect your skin: UVA and UVB.  Tanning beds use UVA light, which penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB rays.  So tanning beds can cause just as much – if not more – damage as the sun.  Plus the concentration of UVA rays from a tanning bed is greater than the amount of UVA rays a person gets from the sun. 

Types of Skin Cancer

Studies show that users of tanning beds have much higher risks of basal and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer. Doctors also know that young people are more at risk for melanoma, the most serious kind of skin cancer. Melanoma that’s caught early, when it’s still on the surface of the skin, can be cured. But undetected melanoma can grow downward into the skin until it reaches the blood vessels and lymphatic system. These two systems can act like a highway for the cancer cells, allowing them easy access to distant organs like the lungs or the brain. That’s why early detection is so important.

It used to be that mostly older people got melanoma, but doctors are seeing more people in their twenties and even younger with serious cases of skin cancer.  Among teens and young adults, there is an eight- fold higher risk of melanoma among tanning bed users, due to their exposure to concentrated doses of UV rays.

How to Recognize Skin Cancer

There are things you can do to help with early detection of skin cancer, said Traci Duncan, CRNP, a certified nurse practitioner at Children’s of Alabama. “The most important thing is to know your skin, and be familiar with your moles. Know whether a mole has undergone any kind of recent change, whether it’s in size, shape or color.” 

Minimizing Your Risk

The good news about skin cancer is that you have the power to substantially reduce your family’s risk of getting it by taking sun safety seriously.

  • Avoid the strongest sun of the day — between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 15 or more) whenever you're in the sun.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and cover up with long, loose cotton clothing if you burn easily.
  • Stay out of the tanning salon. The risk of developing melanoma is eight times greater among people who use tanning beds regularly.
  • Regularly check for moles and any changes on your family’s skin

Remember, you don't have to go without a sun-bronzed look. The new generation of self-tanners and body makeups offer easy, realistic results at a reasonable price. Just be sure to use a daily sunblock with an SPF of at least 15 when you go outdoors since fake tanners don't protect you against sunburn or sun damage.

However, it’s a good idea to avoid airbrush or spray on tans. “The FDA hasn't approved DHA, the main ingredient in self-tanners for use internally or on mucous membranes like the lips,” said Duncan.“Spray tans may have unknown health risks because people can breathe in the spray, or the tanner may end up on their lips or eye area.”

By taking these precautions, you can insure your family’s skin truly is healthy.

For more information on this and other health and safety tips, visit

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