Washington State

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Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

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  The Risks of Tanning 


Okay, so that painful sunburn you got in the tanning bed doesn't seem so bad now. Did you know that in twenty or thirty years it could lead to ugly skin blemishes, cataracts, and a weakened immune system? It also can cause premature aging (called photoaging), where the skin becomes thick, wrinkled and leathery. People often think these changes in their skin are just part of getting older, and they don't realize that with proper precautions, your skin can look young and healthy as you age. The most serious side effect of tanning is the increased risk of skin cancer. Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is often fatal. Non-melanoma skin cancers are not usually fatal but shouldn't be taken lightly. THERE IS NO SAFE WAY TO GET A TAN!


Some people are more at risk of sun damage than others. According to the FDA, you need to be especially careful in the sun if you have fair skin; blond, red or light brown hair; and blue, green or gray eyes. If you have freckles and burn before tanning, spend a lot of time outdoors or were previously treated for skin cancer, you also have increased risk. Of course a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is another serious risk factor. People who work indoors all week but try to catch up on their tan on the weekends, or take medications such as acne medicines, antihistamines, tranquilizers, etc., have increased their risk of sun damage too.


There are many steps to take to protect yourself from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Avoid the sun from 10 am to 3 pm; these are the hours when the sun is the strongest. Wear clothing that protects you from the sun, including a hat and UV-protection sunglasses. Always wear sunscreen that has an SPF 30 and is waterproof, even if it is cloudy. Clouds block only 20% of UV rays. UV rays penetrate through water while snow and sand reflect the rays so both can increase the amount of radiation you get. Plan to protect yourself under all conditions.


Artificial ways of getting a tan can be harmful to you, also. People used to think that artificial tans were safer than natural ones because of the type of UV rays used in tanning beds. Scientists believed that UVB rays were the worst. They are now reporting that UVA rays, which the tanning beds use, are just as bad as natural sun. Furthermore, UVA rays have been shown to cause melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

Tanning beds aren't the only way to get an artificial tan; tanning pills, accelerators, bronzers and extenders are also available. Tanning pills contain carotenoids, which give carrots their orange color. These are not safe because you are consuming high levels of beta-carotene. Tanning accelerators have not been proven effective and do not stimulate the body's own tanning process. Bronzers and extenders are considered cosmetics and are a safe way to get a fake, temporary tan. They stain the skin and can be washed off with soap and water. The color, which wears off after a couple of days, is harmless. They usually don't offer sunscreen protection. Enjoy your time outdoors in the sun, but remember to protect your skin. You are going to need it for a long time.

(En Español)