• Núria Estapé, science journalist

    Tanning beds: high-risk tans

    People who use artificial sunlight to get a tan in record time may pay a heavy price in the long run. This is demonstrated by recent studies that link exposure to ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds with a high risk of developing skin cancer.


    “May cause cancer”: this message, displayed in tanning beds in some countries, warns of the risks of exposure to artificial ultraviolet radiation. By now, 11 European countries (Spain in 2002) have banned minors from using tanning beds, with the state of California in the USA following suit more recently. Even more dramatically, in 2009 Brazil totally banned tanning beds (for both adults and children). Such restrictions are not unwarranted.


    Melanoma risk

    Numerous studies show that exposure to artificial sunlight means receiving 10 to 15 times more ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) than exposure to the midday sun on the Mediterranean coast, with the result being an increase of 20% in the rate of cutaneous malignant melanoma, the skin cancer that causes most deaths. This is the overwhelming conclusion of a British Medical Journal article published in July 2012 that analysed the results of 27 studies conducted over the past 30 years regarding the effects of using tanning beds on skin health.

    Another study, published last year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reports that the risk of skin cancer doubles for tanning sessions undergone before the age of 35 years. For 730,000 women whose health they followed up for 20 years, the authors calculated that the 5,500 women who most frequently visited tanning centres (15% of the total) suffered this type of carcinoma.


    Tanorexia: tanning addiction

    Despite the warnings and dangers, why do some people continue to visit tanning salons? Could exposure to artificial sun be addictive? A study published in Addiction Biology shows that artificial sunlight produces changes in the brain similar to the changes caused by smoking, cocaine and sugary foods. In other words, artificial sunlight is pleasurable, resulting in a desire to repeat the sessions time and again, despite the adverse effects. When this desire is out of control, we refer to tanning addiction, or tanorexia. Detecting and treating this behaviour, especially in younger people, is essential in order to minimize the devastating effects for skin health.