As lore has it, Coco Chanel caught a bit too much sun aboard a Mediterranean cruise in the 1920s and inadvertently created a tanning craze. From then on, skin with a golden glow was seen as indicative of the leisure afforded by the white upper class.
Flash forward several decades. In the 1970s, the tanning bed was invented in the US. The machines offered a quick, cheap, and effective shortcut to getting an all-over glow.
Of course, ultraviolet rays from the sun, from tanning beds, and tanning lamps are known carcinogens, meaning they increase your risk of skin cancer. That’s because research indicates that UV light can both cause melanoma and increase the risk of a benign mole progressing to melanoma. Yep, that’s the deadliest form of skin cancer. There’s a reason TIME named tanning beds one of the worst inventions of the century.
Even one use of a tanning bed increases your risk, a fact made all the more frightening by the number of tanning bed users. Thirty-five percent of American adults have used a tanning bed, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. While the number of people using tanning beds has declined in recent years, their use remains legal among adults. (Some states have placed restrictions on the use of tanning beds by minors.)
We spoke to Vivian Bucay, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Texas and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation, about the risks.
Ahead, Bucay explains why there’s no such thing as a healthy tan:
People who tanned indoors, even just to once, are six times more likely to have a melanoma in their 20s than those who’ve never tanned indoors. We see a lot of teenagers who are getting ready for prom or people getting ready for the beach. But this is true at all ages. The more that women tan indoors, the higher the risk for getting a melanoma. Melanoma can be lethal, though people will also get a higher risk of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer from indoor tanning.
The younger you are when you use a tanning bed, the faster you increase your risk for melanoma. Tanning beds weaken the immune system. A big chunk of our immune system lives in our skin, which is designed to recognize things that are foreign to the body, whether it’s a wart virus or a skin cancer cell floating around. But the radiation, either from indoor or outdoor exposure, decreases and weakens the immune system which in then in turn increases the risk of skin cancer.
Nobody goes in, tests, or calibrates those lamps. They’re just basically ultraviolet A light, which we know penetrates deeper and can cause more damage at the cellular level. If I have a laser in my office, I’m required to make sure that my laser gets proper maintenance and it’s calibrated. But there’s no such [oversight] in place because tanning lamps are considered cosmetic.
The sun is 93 million miles away from the Earth and tanning lamps are just a few inches away from the body. It’s just much closer and much more direct.
It’s something that’s harder to understand, especially when you’re younger. You think, “Ah those implications, I’m not at risk for that.” But it has been proven time and time again.
My nickname for tanning beds? I call them cancer coffins.
*Comments have been edited for length and clarity.