Why These Women Still Use Tanning Beds — Despite The Risks

Photo: Courtesy of Getty
When it comes to tanning, the UK is a nation obsessed.
Sales of self-tanners — including lotions, milks, and mousses — are currently through the roof. In fact, researchers at the NPD Group reported that the faux-tan market was worth an enormous £5.9 million (around $7.8 million USD) in 2017, all thanks to brilliant advances in tanning technology. Gone are the days where getting a safe tan meant risking telltale streaky limbs and patchy hands.
So why, when there's an entire market dedicated to giving you a bronze glow akin to spending two weeks in the Maldives within minutes, are British women still using tanning beds?
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Despite the known risks, Mintel reported that 10% of UK consumers aged 25-44 used a tanning bed in the 12 months leading up to September 2017 — and that's a huge cause for concern. According to London-based dermatologist Justine Kluk, the contribution of tanning beds to malignant melanoma, the most aggressive type of skin cancer, has been estimated at 100 deaths per year in the UK, and Cancer Research reports that higher tanning bed use among young females than young males may explain their higher incidence of melanoma. "Cancer Research UK confirms that using a [tanning bed] increases the risk of melanoma by as much as 16-20%," Dr. Kluk says, "while the International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified artificial ultraviolet (UV) radiation as a class 1 carcinogen."
"Most dermatologists will see patients in their clinics who have developed skin cancer or premature skin aging as a direct effect of having used tanning beds," continues Dr. Kluk, who also says that she'd like to see them banned in the UK. "With moles, concern arises when any new or existing mole increases in size or changes in shape or color, particularly if darker colors start to appear. Persistent itching or bleeding from a mole are also indicators that an urgent visit to the GP or dermatologist is needed."
Interestingly, it isn't just a goddess-like glow women are after: If you have acne or psoriasis, or suffer from a vitamin D deficiency, you may have come across information (likely unregulated) that lists tanning-bed use as an appropriate solution — but the experts say otherwise. "There are no health benefits to using tanning beds at home or in a salon," Dr. Kluk says. "Vitamin D can be obtained through diet or supplementation, so this argument doesn’t stand up." And the same goes for acne.
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"We are most likely to enjoy sunny conditions when we’re on holiday, away from work and generally feeling less stressed about life," says Dr. Kluk. "These factors may be more relevant than the sunshine itself in improving breakouts. While I have heard people say that their spots genuinely improve in the sun, the problem with this is that there are much safer and more effective ways to treat breakouts than exposing our skin to UV rays, and it is never advisable to use tanning beds as a way of controlling spots, because the risk of skin cancer outweighs any benefit."
As for psoriasis? Dr. Kluk suggests that we might be confusing tanning-bed usage with the expert-approved treatment of phototherapy — and it's doing our skin much more harm than good.
"Phototherapy utilizes particular wavelengths of UV radiation that have been shown in medical studies to reduce inflammation in the skin. It is a strictly-regulated hospital treatment prescribed by dermatologists on a case-by-case basis for people with moderate to severe psoriasis or eczema that haven’t been satisfactorily controlled with first-line therapies, such as creams," explains Dr. Kluk. The important difference? "The dose of UV is carefully measured and calibrated during phototherapy and the number of overall treatments in a lifetime are restricted to prevent any unacceptable rise in the risk of skin cancer."
Put simply, the argument that tanning beds cure psoriasis is defunct. "It is never a good idea to experiment with tanning beds for psoriasis on your own, as settings and conditions will vary from the safe parameters used in hospitals," adds Dr. Kluk. "If you have any questions about this, or any other skin conditions, please do discuss it with your GP or a consultant dermatologist."
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Click through to read six British women’s experiences with tanning beds…
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
1 of 6

I use tanning beds to enhance my freckles

"I book in a tanning bed once every few months for 15 minutes and I’ve been using them for around 10 years.

It’s totally a looks thing. It may sound silly to some, but the main reason I use them is to enhance the natural smattering of freckles I have on my nose and cheeks. I really love mine, and I’ve seen so many celebrities going makeup-free to show them off on Instagram. They really come up when I’m bronzed and I feel like they make me look younger.

My Cypriot granddad was an avid sun-worshipper and developed lip cancer at the age of 68. Luckily it was diagnosed early and he had the cancerous cells removed. I know that this should put me off, but I have to admit, I just try not to think about the dangers — I push them to the back of my mind. I also travel frequently for work and can’t bear the thought of showing off my pasty limbs in shorts or dresses, so having an even tan that I know won’t go patchy when it fades makes me feel so much better.

I know cellulite is natural, but mine looks much less noticeable after a session in the tanning bed. I also like how the effects are virtually instant — I have olive skin, so 15 minutes is all I need to see a subtle difference. People always talk about the dangers of cancer and wrinkles; my best friend even tried to book me in for an appointment with her dermatologist, but I don't want to be told off! I’m always asked why I don’t just use faux tan, but I’m super busy and don’t have time to slather myself in smelly mousse and then wait hours for the color to develop. Tanning beds are fast and convenient and there’s virtually a shop on every corner. Sometimes, I even go during my lunch break."

Ayse, 31
2 of 6

Tanning beds seemed to help clear up my eczema

"I started using tanning beds when I was about 20 years old, and continued to do so until just under a year ago, around my 32nd birthday.

I used them because I thought I looked much more attractive with a tan. My face is prone to eczema, which meant red, flaky skin — and that made me feel incredibly insecure. If my skin was much darker than usual, then it didn’t look so blotchy and red. I guess it just made me feel so much more confident. It also seemed to help clear it up.

Once I started using tanning beds, I quickly began to use them more frequently. I would go to the salon several times a week, sometimes even daily, and have been known to do it twice in one day. So as not to get caught, I used to alternate between different tanning shops, where I was using over the recommended amount (2-3 sessions a week, according to the Sunbed Association).

I eventually stopped using them because I noticed how much my skin had aged. I now have sun spots, which are only usually seen in much older ladies. It’s incredibly upsetting, especially as my skin is now always dry. Even though I make an effort to moisturize daily, I feel like tanning beds have made me look older. As a result, I’ve become obsessed with anti-aging products, and I’ve started spending a significant amount more on my moisturizers, serums, and cleansers.

To be honest, when I was using them, I didn’t worry about the risks. I never burned so I thought I was fine. Now I am much more aware of the risks. I don’t know anyone who has had any health implications as a result of using tanning beds, but I do worry about the extent of the damage I’ve caused. It might be years before I find out if I have done serious damage."

Isobel, 32
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3 of 6

I was frightened into never using them again

"I first started using tanning beds when I was 20. Back then, I’d go regularly. At 50p (around $.67 cents USD) per minute, they’re relatively cheap, and I’d often opt for a course where the salon would charge a discounted rate for a bundle; for example, £25 (around $33 USD) for 60 minutes. The best part is that I never, ever had to book an appointment. In my experience, tanning shops usually have five or more beds available and I’ve never had a favorite, so I haven’t had to wait — I’ve always just walked in.

When I was younger, I liked the fact that no one really asked me questions before each session. I was always advised to reduce the number of minutes I spent on the bed if the bulbs had not long been changed, but no other information, like personal or health details, was ever discussed.

Then, I never gave a single thought to skin cancer. Now it’s starting to concern me. My friend very recently had a cancer scare after spotting an abnormal mole, and because her doctor said it was most likely due to her excessive tanning-bed use, I’ve been cutting down.

Don’t get me wrong: At the time it frightened me into never wanting to use them again, but I have to admit that I still go on a tanning bed in the run-up to a special occasion. I visited a tanning salon before my wedding earlier this year and it made a massive difference in how I felt in my dress and how I appeared in my photos — I looked healthy and glowing. While I don’t think a tan makes me look slimmer, it gives me a similar confidence boost as if I were to lose a couple of pounds, without having to make much effort at all.

Those are my main reasons, really. I have some friends who go on a tanning bed before a holiday to give them a 'base tan' but I think that’s pointless. If you spend too much time in the sun, you’re going to burn regardless — you don't have to be a genius to work that one out."

Marianna, 29
4 of 6

My beautician told me it could help with my breakouts

"My hormones are always in flux as I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which means I’ve suffered with acne on and off since my teens. I get it on my face, back, chest, and even on my thighs. One thing I’ve always found helpful in minimizing the painful pustules and deep spots is spending time in the sun. When I’m away somewhere hot, my skin miraculously clears up, and it’s not just me who notices it. My parents and my boyfriend always comment on how great my skin looks during and after a holiday.

I was talking about it with a beautician friend one day and she suggested giving tanning beds a go, as she knew a few clients who used them regularly to keep their skin from breaking out as much. At the time, my acne was really getting me down (I’d tried medication, lots of different skincare regimens and made so many visits to my GP — all useless) so I thought I’d give it a go. The thought of skin cancer or wrinkles didn’t occur to me — I just wanted my acne gone.

I started going every week, beginning with 15 minutes, then taking it up to 30 minutes each time. I still get a few whiteheads from time to time but I’ve found that the bigger, more painful spots are now few and far between. One thing I have noticed, though, is that any pigmented acne scars I have left behind are getting darker and harder to shift. Since then, I’ve limited myself to one or two sessions, once or twice a month. I also made the mistake of introducing retinol into my skincare routine and coupling it with a tanning-bed session recently. My skin did not react well and I won’t be doing that again.

If anything, lying on a tanning bed gives me an hour of uninterrupted time where I can just let my mind wander. I feel like it’s actually becoming less of an aesthetic thing for me and more about chilling out."
5 of 6

I had a loyalty card and everything

"I first started using tanning beds a few years ago, as I was going on holiday with a group of friends at college. We all went a few times before jetting off.

I initially used them on the run-up to a holiday but my visits became more regular once I had a taste for it. I'd say maybe a few times a month during spring and summer. Not exactly excessive, but enough! I told myself that if I got my skin used to the sun before a holiday, I wouldn't burn, which I think was actually effective. I have Irish skin, so burning for me is definitely a 'thing,' but I do tend to go quite dark (post-red phase) in the sun and wanted to skip the part where I look like a lobster.

I was aware of the risks of tanning beds, but I told myself that because I wasn't going on them for a really long period of time, I'd be fine. My sister was actually advised to use tanning beds for her vitamin D deficiency, which made me totally fine with using them.

I didn't keep my tanning bed use a secret. I used to go with friends from home and also friends at university. I did initially keep it hidden from my parents, but I soon realized I can't keep secrets from that pair! I never used them at home, always in a salon — I had a loyalty card and everything.

I don't know anyone who has had health implications from tanning beds. SPF is something I'm now really conscious of. I don't use tanning beds anymore and when on holiday I'm normally all about the sunscreen — unless I've been drinking rosé by the pool! I've also recently started using facial SPF daily, as I think I've always been quite naive about sun damage in general."

Meg, 25
6 of 6

I stepped out and fainted

"I used a tanning bed once, and only once.

I was about 15, working part-time in a Levi's shop, and one of the older 'cooler' girls who used to do a tanning bed every day on her lunch break dragged me across the road to try one. She insisted it would be the best prep for my summer holidays.

I remember the smell hit me when I went in — what is that smell?

I stripped, put on my swimming goggles, and assumed the position. When the lights came on it felt cool for a while, like I was in Blade Runner, but buck naked. After about four minutes I started to feel a bit wobbly. I pressed the panic button and the woman at reception came in. I stepped out and actually fainted, wearing nothing but the scratchy disposable panties, at her feet.

I can safely say that I never went on a tanning bed again after that, and never will. I have fully accepted my pale Irish skin, and wish everyone else would be happy with theirs, too.

If not, there is always the reasonable and, most importantly, non-carcinogenic way to get a tan — from a bottle."

Katy, 37
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