Q: Is tanning natural?
A: Yes. Tanning is your body’s natural protection against sunburn; it’s what your body is designed to do. Anti-tanning lobbyists falsely refer to this process as “damage” to your skin, but calling a tan “damage” is a dangerous oversimplification.
In fact, it’s much like calling exercise “damage to your muscles.” When you exercise, you are actually tearing tiny muscle fibers in your body. At first glance, when examined at the micro-level, this tearing could be called “damage.” But this damage on the micro-level is your body’s natural way of building stronger muscle tissue on the macro-level. So to call exercise “damaging” to muscles would be misleading. The same can be said of sun exposure: your body is designed to repair any damage to the skin caused by ultraviolet light exposure. Developing a tan is your body’s natural way of protecting against the dangers of sunburn and further exposure.
It is the professional indoor tanning industry’s position that sunburn prevention is a more effective message than total abstinence, which ultimately encourages abuse. We believe ours is a responsible, honest approach to the issue.
Q: How does your skin tan?
A: Whether you tan outdoors under the sun or indoors in a professional tanning facility, the tanning process is the same. This natural process takes place when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet light. Here is an overview.
Light is composed of energy waves that travel from the sun to the Earth. Each energy wave can be identified by its length in nanometers, (nm), which is one-billionth of a meter. Light can be broken into three general categories: infrared, visible and invisible. Ultraviolet light is in the invisible light spectrum.
There are three kinds of ultraviolet light: UVA, UVB and UVC. Two of those categories, UVA and UVB, are used in indoor tanning equipment.
Tanning equipment is designed to replicate UVA and UVB produced by the sun, but tanning lamps emit the light in carefully controlled and government-regulated combinations. As a result, the user has control over their exposure. That’s why people face greater risk of overexposure tanning outdoors than they do by using tanning equipment indoors.
Tanning itself takes place in the skin’s outermost layer, the epidermis. There are three major types of skin cells in your epidermis: basal cells, keratinocytes and melanocytes. All play different roles in the tanning process.
Everyone has roughly the same number of melanocytes in their bodies—about 5 million. Your heredity determines how much pigment your melanocytes can produce. Melanocytes release extra melanosomes whenever ultraviolet light waves touch them. This produces a tan in your skin.
The tanning process is your skin’s natural way of protecting itself from sunburn and overexposure. Calling a tan "damage to the skin” isn’t telling the whole story. Your skin is designed to tan to protect itself.
Q: Why is indoor tanning more responsible than outdoor tanning?
A: Indoor tanning, for individuals who can develop a tan, is a smart way to minimize the risk of contracting sunburn while maximizing the enjoyment and benefit of having a tan. In a professional indoor tanning facility, trained personnel teach tanners how their particular skin type reacts to sunlight and how to avoid sunburn—both outdoors as well as in the salon.
Tanning in a professional facility today minimizes the risk of overexposure to UV light. In the United States, exposure times for tanning sessions are derived from a schedule displayed on every piece of tanning equipment. By taking into account the tanner’s skin type and the intensity of the equipment, this schedule helps to deliver a dosage of UV light that is designed to minimize the risk of sunburn. The schedule also takes into account how long an individual has been tanning, increasing exposure times gradually to minimize the possibility of burning. This kind of control is impossible outdoors, where variables including seasonality, time of day, weather conditions, reflective surfaces and altitude all make sunburn prevention more difficult.
Q: Are tanning beds more intense than natural sunlight?
A: The amount of UV radiation that a person is exposed to depends on many factors including time of day, season and latitude. The spectrum of UV radiation from a tanning bed is similar to that of sunlight. It is less intense than being in the sun at the equator in June at noon, but more intense than being in the sun in Boston or San Francisco at the same time of year. Even with a tan of SPF 4 (a moderate tan), a person who would burn after being in the sun for 30 minutes can now be outside for 120 minutes before getting a sun burn. This highlights an important benefit of moderate tanning—it prevents burning.