1. Health

Can I use sunscreen in a tanning bed to make it safer?

By

Updated July 17, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Can I use sunscreen in a tanning bed to make it safer?
I am going on a cruise in a few weeks and would like to establish a base tan. I was wondering if it would be safe to go in a tanning bed as long as I wear an SPF 50 sunscreen. I don't have time to tan outdoors and I am really scared of getting a bad sunburn on my cruise. If wearing sunscreen in a tanning bed isn't a good idea, what's the best way I can get a base tan before my cruise?
Answer: Many cruisers are worried about getting sunburned on their vacation. The ultraviolet rays in tropical cruise destinations are often stronger than what we are used to at home. Plus, shady areas on the main deck of cruise ships and on beach excursions can be few and far between. Sun protection should definitely be a priority for those going on a cruise.

Using a tanning bed, even with sunscreen, is not advisable for a few different reasons. First, research has repeatedly shown that tanning beds are not safe. They increase your risk of skin cancer, particularly melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer that can be life-threatening. According to the National Cancer Institute, women who use tanning beds once a month are 55 times more likely to develop malignant melanoma.

Second, premature aging can also be caused by tanning beds. Skin can become wrinkled, appear to have a leather-like texture, and lose its elasticity. Unfortunately, the skin isn't very forgiving when it becomes damaged by UV exposure. Men and women who tan regularly, either through tanning beds or outdoors, look much older than their peers of the same age who don't tan.

Finally, using sunscreen in a tanning bed would not result in a tan. Tanning beds work by utilizing bulbs that emit artificial UV rays that are sometimes even stronger than the sun. Sunscreen is effective because it blocks UV rays. Wearing sunscreen would defeat the purpose of using a tanning bed.

The Mythical Base Tan

It is a commonly believed myth that getting a "base tan" before going on a vacation will protect you from sunburns. Visit any cruise forum on the internet and you will read about cruisers who swear by getting a base tan before a cruise. Their testaments of not being sunburned are likely due to diligent sunscreen use while cruising, rather than getting tan beforehand. From my experience, onboard sunscreen use by passengers is high -- the fear of burning is a great motivator to be more diligent about applying sunscreen.

What many people do not realize is that a tan is actually evidence of skin damage caused by UV ray exposure, artificial or natural. When people are trying to establish a base tan to protect their skin, they are actually doing more harm than good. They are often surprised that they still get sunburned, despite having a "base tan."

To avoid burning, practice sun safety tactics that have been proven to be effective at protecting your skin. The first rule of sun safety is to apply sunscreen when outdoors and apply it frequently. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying an SPF 30 level sunscreen to your skin. Higher SPF levels are available, but studies show that they only provide about 1 to 2% more protection. Stick with SPF 30 or higher and you will have sun protection as long as you apply it correctly and follow the manufacturer's instructions for reapplying.

Other sun-savvy tips include:

  • wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect the face
  • covering areas of exposed skin when outdoors
  • wearing clothing with built-in SPF (SPF bathing suits are available, too)
  • staying in the shade (sit under an umbrella, awning, or other shady area)
  • avoiding midday sun
  • wearing UV-protective sunglasses

Source:

"Sunbeds, tanning and UV exposure". World Health Organization (WHO) Fact Sheet No. 287, March 2005.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Cancer
  4. Types of Cancer N-Z
  5. Skin Cancer/Melanoma
  6. Skin Cancer Prevention
  7. Sunscreen and Tanning Beds

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.