Overexposure to natural and/or artificial ultraviolet radiation is a major risk factor in the development of skin cancer (melanomas and carcinomas). The emergence of the practice of tanning over the last 30 years has resulted in a substantial increase in skin cancers, particularly melanomas whose incidence increased over threefold between 1980 and 2005. This trend was accompanied by an increase in the popularity of tanning booths, a suntan being a socially accepted beauty asset and a symbol of good health.
What are the risks related to exposure to UV radiation?
Whether the source is natural or artificial, UV radiation is hazardous for the skin (sunburn, accelerated ageing, skin cancers such as melanomas, etc.) and eyes (macular degeneration of the retina, early cataracts, etc.).
Ultraviolet tanning facilities emit two types of radiation: UVAs and UVBs (see box).
Exposure to UVAs and UVBs causes DNA lesions for doses below those causing sunburn. In France, tanning facilities use more UVAs than UVBs, so the user may (wrongly) feel safe due to the lack of sunburn.
In July 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified UV radiation (UVA, UVB and UVC) and radiation from artificial tanning facilities as “carcinogenic in humans”.
Artificial tanning and the risk of cancer
Artificial tanning increases the risk of skin cancer
The UV radiation from tanning booths or UV lamps is in addition to naturally-occurring UV exposure, thus increasing the risk of skin cancer. Epidemiological data show that exposure at least once to an artificial tanning system increases the risk of developing a skin melanoma by 15%. This figure soars to 75% when artificial tanning facilities are used before the age of 35 years [IARC, 2007]. In France, tanning booths are responsible for 19 to 76 deaths by skin cancer every year [cf. weekly epidemiological bulletin, InVS, May 2012].
Artificial tanning offers no proven protection against other types of cancer
No epidemiological survey to date has ever revealed a protective effect of exposure to the sun on breast, colon, prostate or other types of cancer.
Artificial tanning and the sun
Artificial tanning is wrongly seen to be safer than exposure to the sun
Users may wrongly feel safe because this technique does not normally lead to sunburn and the skin does not feel hot. There have even been cases of prolonged exposure to an artificial UV source leading to skin burns over up to 90% of the body.
Artificial tanning does not prepare your skin for exposure to the sun
The pigmentation acquired after exposure in tanning booths does not lead to a thickening of the epidermis, and does not therefore provide any effective protection against later exposure to the sun. It may even give users a false sense of security, encouraging them not to apply sun protection products or principles.
In the long term, artificial tanning accelerates the appearance of signs of skin ageing
Repeated exposure to UV radiation of any kind leads to the appearance of marks, wrinkles and a thinning of the skin after some 10 to 20 years. However, the effect is more pronounced for artificial tanning because the UVAs mainly used in tanning booths penetrate even deeper into the skin.
A word of caution on misconceptions
Artificial tanning and seasonal depression
The benefits of the sun on morale and its positive role in countering seasonal depression (luminotherapy) are due to visible light only. The allegation whereby artificial tanning could be used to combat seasonal depression is scientifically unfounded.
Artificial tanning as a source of vitamin D
Given the proven carcinogenic potential of artificial UV radiation, the frequency of side effects in the very short term and the availability of oral forms of vitamin D, there is no justification for the use of UV lamps to cover the vitamin D needs of the general population. For a fair-skinned person, exposure of the face and forearms to the mid-day sun for 5 to 10 minutes two or three times a week is enough to produce all the vitamin D the human body needs.
We therefore strongly recommend not using artificial tanning facilities. In France, minors have been prohibited from using tanning booths since 1997.