Sunlight Alternatives

Indoor Tanning

Indoor tanning devices, such as sunlamps and sunbeds, have been around and in widespread use since the 1970s. These are available both in commercial tanning salons and as devices for home use. Tanning salons in particular have grown rapidly in number since the 1990s, and are continuing to grow.

Used properly and of the correct design, sunlamps and sunbeds can provide a viable alternative to natural sunlight and can provide many of its benefits, including vitamin D production, especially in less than sunny climates where sufficient sunlight is not available at some times of the year. However, used improperly, such devices can be much more dangerous than natural sunlight. Tanning devices are only safer than sunlight in that intensity and exposure time can be more precisely controlled.

Until recently, most sunlamps were designed to produce mostly UVA and little UVB. This was in order to minimise the risk of sunburn, which is caused primarily by UVB. However, UVA is just as dangerous, if not more so, than UVB, since it penetrates more deeply into the skin where it can do more damage. Also the type of tan produced by UVA is much weaker, needing much greater exposure to achieve a similar effect, and fades much more quickly, than that produced by UVB.

Therefore it is much better to use a more modern sunlamp that closely emulates the UV spectrum in natural sunlight. Also such devices should not be used at intensities greater than moderately strong sunlight – equivalent to a UVI of about 3–4. Intermittent, intense UV exposure is a significant risk factor in melanoma development (the most serious, often fatal, form of skin cancer), much more so than frequent, moderate exposure. Do not try to accelerate the tanning process by using short sessions at high intensity levels: give your skin time to develop a tan slowly.

If you wish to use a sunlamp to develop your tan before going on holiday – probably advisable if you are going to a sunnier climate, for more than just cosmetic reasons – start well in advance using a moderate intensity level and develop your tan gently over several weeks, in a similar manner to that recommend for natural sunlight tanning.

Those who need to take extra care and precautions in natural sunlight should also exercise similar care when using sunlamps and sunbeds, if they use them at all. Some authorities recommend that such people should never use tanning devices. These people include those who:

  • Are under 18,
  • Have very fair skin,
  • Burn easily or tan poorly,
  • Have many freckles or moles,
  • Already have extensive ‘sunlight’ damage to their skin,
  • Have had skin cancer, or have a family history of it,
  • Are using medication, or have a condition, that makes them abnormally sensitive to UV light.

Sunlamps, sunbeds, and other tanning devices therefore offer an alternative to natural sunlight, provided they are used properly. They are not inherently safer than the sun, and can be much more dangerous. They therefore need to be used with as much care and caution as exposure to natural sunlight.

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