The Real Difference Between Tanning Beds And Tanning In The Sun

The idea that bronzed, glowingly tanned skin looks "healthy" is a hard one to kill. In spite of the fact that health authorities have been warning us about the dangers of tanning beds for decades, a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology found that 35% of American adults have used a tanning bed at one point in their lives.

For many, the trip to a tanning salon is to get a "base tan" before heading out into the sun to tan some more, but is that better than starting with sunlight? Are there any real differences between tanning beds and natural sunlight?

In both cases, skin is exposed to a mixture of ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which make up about 95% of the radiation that reaches Earth from the sun, and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which make up the other 5% (via Harvard Medical School). Tanning beds emit UVA and UVB rays in roughly the same proportions as sunlight. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are mostly responsible for tanning, but also contribute to premature aging of the skin and skin cancer development. UVB rays damage the superficial skin cells, leading to sunburn and contributing to skin cancer.

Tanning beds come with a slew of risks

Health experts are quick to point out that UV radiation, regardless of where it comes from, is damaging to the skin. "UVA partners up with UVB to cause more serious problems, like skin cancer," Dermatologist Dr. Saira George told the MD Anderson Cancer Center. "UVB does not penetrate as deeply as UVA, but it can wreak havoc on the top layers of your skin."

While sunlight and tanning beds both emit UV radiation, there are some differences between them. As it turns out, tanning beds are worse for you. The UVA radiation emitted by the fluorescent bulbs used in tanning beds is up to three times stronger than what you get from sunlight, and research shows that individuals who start indoor tanning before age 35 have a 75% increase in developing melanoma (via Harvard Medical School). A 2007 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology suggested that the risk of skin cancer from tanning beds is double that of spending the same amount of time basking in the hottest Mediterranean sun.

Slap on some sunblock and enjoy the sunshine, which has loads of proven health benefits, including boosting our mood (via TIME). Just remember that when it comes to tanning beds, it's better for your health to take a pass. If you really want a tan, make it a spray-on.