Regis: Some of my students use tanning beds for the perfect sun-kissed skin. Since the beds emit UVA, tanning is controlled with minimal risk of sunburn from UVB radiation. Aren’t tanning beds safer than exposure to the sun?
Barbara: Unfortunately, tanning beds are not absolutely safe. They primarily emit UVA, but some UVB is also present, both of which cause cataracts and make skin leathery. Frequent use of tanning beds triples the risk of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer places tanning beds in its highest cancer risk category. UVB waves produce vitamin D3, but it is probably safer to obtain vitamin D3 from your diet or supplements.
Regis: Maybe the best tan is sunless. “Tan in a Can” products use materials that generate a tan without UV exposure. Creams, gels, lotions, and sprays contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) [Fig. 2], a sugar that colors the outer skin cells. Unfortunately, this nice tan usually lasts only one week because you constantly shed dead cells.
Barbara: Tanning materials using DHA are effective, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved them for external use only, with warnings to avoid contact with the lips and eyes. Other precautions include testing for allergic reactions and using a sunscreen because DHA provides no UV protection. These products can be expensive and require several hours for the color to develop.
Regis: If you are going to have fun in the sun, do it safely. Scientists have not yet determined exactly how much UV radiation causes cancer. However, we can measure each type of UV during the day. According to Table 1, it is important to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and to remember that UVA penetrates both clouds and the glass of your car windows. So, wear sunscreen, even on a cloudy day.