Yes, You Can Tan… with Caution: Sun Beds and Vitamin D

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that it has elevated sun beds, used for tanning by tens of millions of people in the US alone, to its highest cancer risk category — at the same level as mustard gas and arsenic. According to Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew Rubman, ND, we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn.

In recent years, public health experts concerned about the rising incidence of skin cancer have issued blanket warnings about the dangers of tanning by both natural and artificial means. However, along with many other naturopathic practitioners, Dr. Rubman believes that the WHO and the mainstream medical community have gone overboard in their admonitions. Yes, it’s true that excessive exposure to ultraviolet UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer, but moderate exposure to sun or other light is not harmful and actually facilitates good health by enabling your body to manufacture a key nutrient — vitamin D.

Nice Tan…

For most people, spending 10 to 20 minutes outdoors each day will provide all the vitamin D you need. Natural sunlight is best, confirms Dr. Rubman, noting that we are genetically “primed” to use it for vitamin D synthesis. But when sunshine is scarce — for example, if you live in the northern US during cold and gray winter months — you can replace what you’re missing by visiting a tanning salon from time to time, he says. Keep in mind, however, that tanning beds deliver a more intense and concentrated dose of ultraviolet radiation, which poses a greater threat of skin cancer.

How Much Is Too Much?

The degree to which you can safely bask in the sun or on a sun bed is determined by factors such as your ethnicity, skin type and pigmentation, whether you freckle easily or have a lot of moles, cumulative sun exposure, medical history and general vulnerability to sunburn or skin cancer. Put simply, the darker your skin, the more natural protection you possess against the dangers of UV radiation and the longer you can safely spend on the beach or in the tanning booth. Though a data battle is under way between the tanning industry and the oncology community, Dr. Rubman says there is not currently a consensus among experts as to how much time is considered “safe.” He advises erring on the side of caution, taking into account your individual risk factors and consulting with your doctor to set your own standards.

The next step is to locate a reputable tanning salon. While requirements vary from state to state and even within states, most license such facilities to ensure that staff is properly trained… that the equipment complies with FDA standards for radiation-emitting products (including that it carries appropriate warning labels and specific information for safe use)… that the facilities are sanitary… and that they have a list of medications with side effects associated with exposure to sunlight or tanning. Inquire whether the tanning beds are properly sterilized between uses and be skeptical if you notice that the facility is less than sparkling clean. UVB rays are the triggers for vitamin D manufacture, but since they’re also more likely to burn skin than UVA radiation, many tanning beds contain bulbs that emit primarily UVA rays. Not only will this not facilitate the health benefit of vitamin D, since UVA rays have longer wavelengths and penetrate deeper into skin, you may unknowingly damage deeper layers of skin and raise cancer risk — without even getting a sunburn that would alert you to the danger.

Additional safety tips include…

  • Visit a tanning salon no more than once a week.
  • Limit your exposure. As a rule of thumb, spend about half as much time on a tanning bed as you would spend in the sun. Since 10 to 20 minutes is sufficient for vitamin D synthesis, determine your tanning-bed time from there — if you typically go outdoors for 15 minutes to stoke your vitamin D levels, tan for 7½ minutes.
  • Position the “cover” so that it is about six inches from your body.
  • Wear UV-protective eyewear (opaque black plastic cups that completely cover the eyes, letting no light in). Make sure that these fit securely and are not cracked or broken.
  • Make sure that trained staff is on duty at all times to ensure that there is no malfunction of the timer, so you don’t inadvertently stay under the lights longer than is safe.

Be especially careful if you have any of the known risk factors for skin cancer. For such people, the risk of using tanning beds may outweigh the potential benefits. Dr. Rubman also warns young people to use sun beds with extreme caution, if at all, since overexposure to UV radiation in your teens and 20s increases the risk of life-threatening melanoma later on. For most healthy adults, a balanced approach to tanning can help you maintain a good biochemical balance of vitamin D and all the health benefits that come with that.