Are tanning beds a safe source of vitamin D?
Sensible sun exposure provides the body with the vitamin D that it needs to help
ward off depression, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and osteoporosis. However, many
people have trouble incorporating sunshine into their daily routines, especially
in winter months when daylight hours are few and outdoor activities scarce. When
sunshine is hard to come by, it might be tempting to substitute a trip to the tanning
salon for time spent outdoors. Can tanning beds offer the same health benefits as
sunshine? Specifically, are tanning booths a safe source of vitamin D? Tanning salons
might like you to think so, but don’t be fooled. Indoor tanning is not an
advisable source of vitamin D. The reason lies in the characteristics of ultraviolet
light rays, and how these rays affect the body.
Both the sun and tanning beds emit two types of ultraviolet light rays, UVA and
UVB. The skin absorbs both types, but in different ways. UVA rays have longer wavelengths
that penetrate into the deepest layers of the skin, whereas UVB rays’ wavelengths
are short and only reach the surface layers of skin. Both types of rays contribute
to the health risks associated with excessive sun exposure, such as the risk of
developing skin cancers. However, UVB rays also trigger the synthesis of the vitamin
D precursor in the skin, and thus are solely responsible for the healthy benefits
of sunshine. For most people, exposing one’s arms and face to sunshine for
about 20 minutes per day provides the skin with enough UVB rays to eliminate
vitamin D deficiencies, without causing long-term damage to the skin.
However, while UVB rays account for the health benefits of sunshine, tanning salons
are more interested in UVA rays. This is because overexposure to UVB rays, which
affect the surface layers of skin, quickly causes sunburns. On the other hand, UVA
rays are responsible for the golden-brown tan sought after by most salon patrons.
As a result, most tanning salons calibrate their tanning beds to emit approximately
95 percent UVA rays. This calibration maximizes the tanning effects of the machine
and minimizes the risk of burning. Unfortunately, it also minimizes the amount of
vitamin D that can be metabolized relative to the exposure to damaging ultraviolet
In theory, a tanning bed can be calibrated to emit a greater percentage of UVB rays.
However, it is important to remember that the safety of exposure to either type
of ultraviolet rays depends upon its moderation. Most people do not enter tanning
beds wearing pants and T-shirts, and exposing too much surface area of the skin
can quickly result in excessive absorption of ultraviolet light rays.
That something as simple as being in the sun can have such profound effects on our
health is exciting news, but do not disregard the risks of overexposure. Remember,
15–20 minutes of sunshine a day, several times per week, provides sufficient UVB
absorption for most Caucasians to optimize their vitamin D levels; however, the
darker your skin, the more time you need. In addition, this natural mechanism does
not work equally well at all latitudes and seasons and in all people. If you are
unsure of the amount of sunshine needed, you can get your
vitamin D levels tested and consider supplementing your vitamin D3 intake.
Most tanning beds, while they might offer a golden-brown hue, put you at risk of
unnecessary, excessive exposure to dangerous UVA rays, and are by no means a substitute
for old-fashioned sunshine.
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Last Modified Date: 04/20/2011