Health and Fitness

Tanning: The Good, The Bad and The Dangerous

The sunny season is starting to peek around the corner. While most of us have forgotten about our long-gone tans from last summer, in the coming weeks there will be flocks of people heading outside to get some sun, and the tanning salons will be busier than ever. We hear conflicting arguments about sun and UV light exposure, but what’s the truth? Is there harm in getting a tan at the local salon vs your backyard, or is it better just to avoid UV rays altogether?

The Good

First of all let’s clarify, some UV rays can be good for us! We weren’t meant to stay inside all day everyday. There are a lot of benefits to getting some sun on occasion, though there are precautions to take, which we will talk about a little later.

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Vitamin D

We often hear sun associated with vitamin D. You can read our article, “Sun Exposure and Vitamin D- What’s the Right Balance?” for more info on the topic. Basically, UVB rays help our bodies synthesize vitamin D, which is important for bone health and immune function. Vitamin D is in some foods naturally and many foods are fortified with it, but this usually still doesn’t provide enough. UVB rays are what make up the difference and you can get them from the sun or artificially, like in a tanning bed. The Sunshine Calendar by Vitamin D Day explains how much time in the sun we would need to get to reach our daily requirements of Vitamin D each day. Some factors that affect this are geographic region, skin color, and time of year.

This Sunshine Calendar by Vitamin D Day explains how much time in the sun we need.

Mental Health

Sun and vitamin D have actually been shown to improve mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of depression often onset by less sunlight due to seasonal changes. Doctors suggest using light therapy or getting some sun if it’s available.


Though tanning has those great health benefits, I’d venture to say that almost everyone who actively looks for opportunities to tan does so at least partially because of the immediate cosmetic advantages. Having a “glow” is very desired in our society, and many search for ways they can achieve this look. Indoor tanning can be more consistent and give quicker results, and sun tanning can create a more natural look while still being able to protect the skin more.  We’ll look more into how a tan is achieved, and how, if unprotected, it can lead to some seriously unwanted consequences.

Tanning Beds

Invented in the 1970’s, tanning beds bring bronzing to a new level. Lay down and stand up tanning booths are equipped with bulbs that emit a high concentration of UV rays. Customers have their own rooms where they just lather on tanning lotion, strip down and hop in for usually around 5-15 minutes depending on the type of bed, skin type, and how often the individual goes tanning. It seems like the quick fix when it comes to getting that first “healthy glow”. You can be in and out of the salon in about 20 minutes, and you could be a few shades darker after just a couple visits.

Base Tan

One argument in favor of indoor tanning is that it provides sun protection in the form of a “base tan.” It’s inevitable that most of us will spend some time in the sun, even if you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily always like being outside. And when a time comes that you have a longer than usual sun exposure, like spending all day at the lake or a family reunion at the beach, it’s common to get pretty burned, especially if your skin hasn’t seen much sun since the previous year. This is where many see having what they call a base tan as an advantage, claiming that it makes them less likely to burn.
As far as protection goes, though, a base tan is really only effective as an SPF 4 sunscreen. This means you’ll only be protected from the sun for about 4 minutes, which is barely long enough to walk around the block, let alone your 4 hour family reunion. It’s safe to say a base tan isn’t a good substitute for sunscreen.

 Dangers of Indoor Tanning

Though it’s simple and fast, using tanning beds can be pretty dangerous in the long run. They emit around 12 times more UVA rays than the sun. First time exposure for young tanners can increase their risk of melanoma up to 75%.

Info Souce:

The Skin Cancer Foundation says that more people develop skin cancer from tanning than people who develop lung cancer from smoking. Brazil and Australia have banned indoor tanning altogether because of the negative health effects. There are tons of scary facts, but it’s important to realize how closely linked tanning is to skin cancer. It makes a huge difference too if that tanning if done in tanning beds because of the intensity and closeness of the UV rays. Those who have tanned indoors over 10 times have a 34% higher risk of developing Melanoma than those who have never used one. Some tanners become addicted and what began as a cosmetic goal becomes an expensive, health threatening dependency.


When it’s sunnier outside, most people naturally gravitate to the sun any chance they get. It just feels good, right? Aside from helpful sides of UV rays that we mentioned earlier like vitamin D and lower depression rates, the sun has a few other benefits compared to tanning beds.
First of all, since the sun is further away and the UV rays are less concentrated, most people can spend more time in the sun than in a tanning bed. You can also use sunscreen so you can be in the sun, get a bronze, while still being protected from the UV rays.


The FDA gives a few recommendations while using sunscreen:

  • Limit time in the sun between 10 am and 2 pm (when the sun’s rays are the strongest)
  • Wear clothing to cover skin
  • Use sunscreen with SPF of 15 or higher
  • Reapply every 2 hours or more often if you’re swimming/sweating

The FDA recommends using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. (photo from Academy)

Getting a little color from the sun is more natural and you don’t necessarily have to be there just to “get a tan”. Hiking, swimming and really most outdoor activities in the summer will give you a little bit of a glow. Aside from the cost of sunscreen and a pool floatie, being in the sun is FREE while every other version of getting some color is not.


Excessive sun exposure can cause a variety of problems including sunburns, premature aging, eye damage and various types of skin cancer. Though not as risky as tanning beds, excessive sun exposure is also linked to cancer.  All of these consequences (apart from sunburns) don’t show up very quickly. This creates kind of a disconnect, where it’s harder to realize that the consequences can be severe.


If you want to get that bronzed look without the risks of tanning beds or sun tanning, you aren’t out of luck! Here are a few alternative options to consider:

Spray Tan

Spray tanning or sunless tanning is a great alternative to get a little more bronze if you want to avoid the harmful rays of tanning beds and/or sun tanning. There are different types of spray tans, but I would definitely suggest getting this service done at the salon instead of doing it yourself from a can. It can be messy and turn out looking like a streaky tan all over your body. Probably not the look you were going for!

Bronzing Lotions

If you want to ease into your tan, you may consider using bronzing lotions. They have face moisturizers and well as all body lotions. They work to rub the pigment in your skin, and no salon is needed! You can pick up a bottle for $10-$20 in most self-care departments and it will last for a while.

Self-tanning lotions are a great alternative to sun and indoor tanning. Buy from Ulta here.


Though I’m not accredited to give medical advice, I do have some general tips for staying safe in the sun. I recommend enjoying the sun while it’s here (we only get a few months here in Northern Oregon). It’s best to wear sunscreen and follow the FDA’s recommendations for using it. This way you’ll be able to enjoy the sun, get some Vitamin D, but avoid the harmful effects of long exposure.
I also recommend staying away from tanning beds altogether, as the cons definitely outweigh the benefits. If you’re looking for a little bit of a tan, I suggest using a bronzing lotion or getting a spray tan from a professional.

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