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Tanning Beds, Are they Safe?

By Jay Moncliff

We all like to have that healthy glow that comes from being outdoors and getting some sun. However, we know that sun damage can be harmful to our skin. Many turn to tanning salons to maintain their glow, but is using a tanning bed safe?

The skin tans when exposed to ultraviolet light. To keep itself from burning, skin will manufacture extra coloring, called pigment. This pigment is what causes us to "tan". However, when we get too much ultraviolet light and burn, serious problems can occur. We may suffer damage to our eyes, early wrinkling, blistering and rashes. At worst, we may develop certain types of skin cancer.

Exposing your skin to the ultraviolet light of a tanning booth is advertised as safe, though. It is now known that there are two types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB. UVB rays are the shorter wavelengths that are most likely to cause burning. Longer wavelength UVA rays are less likely to cause a sunburn, but they have been shown to increase risk of melanoma.

Older style tanning beds were developed using primarily UVB rays. These are the ones that you lay in and close on top of your body so that the light tans both sides at once. After publicity that the UVB rays used by these beds could be harmful, many salons switched to devices using UVA rays. They were thought to be safer, but current studies dispute this.

The shorter wavelength UVB rays will cause sunburn on the outermost layer of skin. The results of overexposure are almost immediate and very apparent. However, the UVA rays reach deeper into the tissues, so the layers of tissue beneath the surface can be damaged. Since the effects are harder to see, we don't know how much damage we are doing until it's too late. Both types of ultraviolet light are dangerous.

Continued exposure to these ultraviolet rays can make the skin thinner and limit its ability to heal itself. Not only does this increase premature aging and wrinkling, but it leaves the skin more susceptible to disease, including skin cancer.

Tanning in a tanning bed can also cause retinal damage. Many have experienced burned corneas from overuse of tanning beds, and in extreme cases, even cataracts can develop from overexposure. Even though customers are advised to wear eye goggles, many make do by closing their eyes or placing a cloth over their eyes during tanning, steps that don't stop the UV damage to the eyes.

Are tanning beds safe? If you can limit the time that you use them, wear goggles and be diligent, maybe. However, the best protection is to skip the tanning bed and use a self tanner. Why take chances with the largest organ in your body, your skin? Be mindful of tanning, indoors or outdoors.

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