Study Links Tanning Beds to Skin Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 5, 2002 -- Have you heard that tanning beds don't cause skin cancer? This belief isn't supported by the latest study looking at this controversial issue. Researchers found that people who used these artificial means of attaining that deep bronze glow were, in fact, putting themselves at great risk of skin cancer.

It might seem obvious to some that tanning beds would increase the chance of developing skin cancer. But others have suggested that indoor tanning is the "safer" way to tan. And medical research hasn't been able to solidly show that indoor tanning does, in fact, lead to more skin cancer.

Skin cancer, the most common type of cancer, occurs in more than a million people each year. There are three types: basal cell cancer, the most common; squamous cell cancer; and melanoma, which is the least common but most deadly type. The current study was looking only at the association between tanning beds and non-melanoma skin cancers.

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School looked at over 1,400 people to see if any association between skin cancer and tanning beds exists. Almost 900 of them had either basal cell or squamous cell cancer. Each person was asked about their use of tanning beds or lamps or sun exposure.

Overall, those who had ever used a tanning bed were 2.5 times more likely to have squamous cell cancer and 1.5 times more likely to have basal cell cancer. When sun exposure or sunburns were factored in, the results did not change -- certainly not to say that sun doesn't also raise the risk of skin cancer.

Plus, those that started using tanning beds at an earlier age tended to be more likely to end up with skin cancer. For each decade younger someone was the first time they used a tanning device, they were 20% more likely to get squamous cell cancer -- and 10% more likely to suffer from basal cell cancer.

Although these two types of cancers don't kill you, they do require aggressive treatment with surgery. The surgery can leave disfiguring scars if the cancer isn't treated early.

Though this study doesn't prove that tanning beds actually cause skin cancer, the results certainly suggest that these devices contribute largely to the problem. More research is needed to determine if they actually cause the DNA damage that leads to skin cancer.

There are two messages here. These results make a good argument that tanning beds do raise your chance of getting skin cancer. Secondly, you should see a dermatologist regularly to get a skin check-up. Finding these cancers early makes treatment much easier.