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UV radiation

What you may have heard

There is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan, and getting a base tan cannot prevent sunburn (AAD). Tanning increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and is linked to sunburns, especially when the burn takes place at a young age.

What science tells us

Any tan is a sign of skin damage, according to Sharon Miller, a scientist at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and expert on UV radiation (FDA). Tanning is caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and causes damage to the outermost layer of skin cells.

There are two types of UV radiation that penetrate the skin: UV-B (which penetrates the top layers of skin and is responsible for most sunburns), and UV-A (which penetrates deeper layers of skin and is associated with rashes). Both UV-B and UV-A rays damage the skin and lead to skin cancer.

In addition to the serious risk of skin cancer, tanning can cause premature aging. Tanning causes the skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle prematurely. Tanning (due to UV-B radiation) can cause immune suppression, leaving the body more susceptible to diseases. Exposure to UV radiation can also cause irreversible damage to the eyes.

Epidemiological Evidence

Many epidemiological studies have shown that the use of tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer (Zhang et al.).  

Laboratory Evidence/ Supportive Evidence

Animal and other laboratory studies generally concur with epidemiological evidence that UV exposure is associated with skin cancer risk (Spencer & Amonette).

IARC Carcinogen Classification: Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans)

How to reduce your risk

Avoiding tanning entirely is the best way to protect against skin damage. If you still want the look of a tan, there are many lotion options that give a bronzed look without being in the sun. Regardless, if you spend time in the sun, use sun protection. And it is never too late to start protecting your skin. As soon as you stop tanning, your body begins to repair some of the damage caused by UV rays (AAD).

When choosing a sunscreen, make sure the label says broad spectrum, SPF 30 or higher, and water resistant. Broad spectrum means that the sunscreen can protect your skin from both UV-A and UV-B rays. Water resistant means that the sunscreen will stay on wet or sweaty skin for between 40 to 80 minutes (AAD).

Ecologically friendly sunscreen causes less damage to marine life and may be a good choice for some people.

Bottom line

UV radiation from the sun increases your risk of skin cancer. Avoid tanning, and wear broad spectrum sunscreen 30 or higher when outside.

American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) Association: Dangers of UV radiation
Anne Arundel Dermatology: Stastics on indoor tanning
Food & Drug Administration (FDA): Risks of ultraviolet rays
AAD: How to select a sunscreen & EcoWatch


Published: June 30, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022