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Don't Get Burned by Tanning Salons

Looking for a great tan this summer but hoping to play it safe? Many sun-worshippers who know the dangers of unprotected sun exposure want healthier options. But if a tanning salon is your answer, think twice.

"Tanning salons are as dangerous as tanning outdoors," says James M. Spencer, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Dr. Spencer says tanning beds use ultraviolet (UV) A and UVB light. Dermatologists blame both types of light for cancer and for premature skin aging, which can lead to sagging, wrinkles, loss of suppleness, yellowing and brown spots. Tanning beds can harm your eyes and immune system.

A 2002 report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that tanning devices raised the risk for basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer. Those cancers make up more than a million new cases a year.

"It's the small daily exposure to ultraviolet radiation [UVR] that presents a higher risk of non-melanoma skin cancer," Dr. Spencer says. "Using a tanning bed and then going out in the sun gives a doubly dangerous dose of UVR."

What about tanning products?

Be wary and read labels. Many sunless tanning pills contain large doses of the color additive canthaxanthin, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved for such use. The pills have been linked to retinal deposits of canthaxanthin crystals, aplastic anemia and other health problems.

Tanning accelerators to stimulate the body's own tanning process have been banned by the FDA.

Bronzers stain the skin when applied; you can wash them off with soap and water. Bronzers often contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which is the only color additive currently approved by the FDA for use as a tanning agent. Extenders, another type of sunless tanning product, interact with protein on the skin surface to bring out color that tends to wear off after a few days.

None of these products offers protection from the damaging effects of UV radiation.

Sun safety

  • Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a wide-brimmed hat.

  • Use a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Apply enough to cover well all exposed skin and reapply often -- especially after swimming.

  • Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses that block all UV radiation.