Tanning Beds Classified as “Carcinogenic to Humans”

Posted on July 30th, 2009 by

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) now classifies tanning beds and other UV-emitting tanning devices as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that these devices cause cancer in humans.[1] Use of tanning beds has been linked with an increased risk of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer.

Each year in the U.S., an estimated 28 million people visit an indoor tanning facility, with a majority of visits made by women and teenage girls.[2] In a survey of white adolescents (13 to 19 years old), 37% of the girls and 11% of the boys reported having used a tanning bed at least once.[3] The bad news is that tanning beds – like the sun – expose the skin to ultraviolet radiation, and a growing body of research indicates that indoor tanners have an increased risk of skin cancer.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is often divided into three types: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA has the longest wavelength and least energy of the three, and UVC has the shortest wavelength and most energy. Although the sun emits all three types of ultraviolet radiation, only UVA and UVB reach the surface of the earth (UVC and some UVB are blocked by the ozone layer). UVA and UVB are also the types of ultraviolet radiation emitted by most tanning beds.

UVB is the cause of most sunburns and has long been recognized as carcinogenic. UVA – which penetrates more deeply into the skin– was initially thought to be relatively safe. Now, however, it’s recognized that both types of ultraviolet radiation are likely to contribute to skin cancer.[4],[5] Ultraviolet radiation also contributes to premature aging of the skin.[6]

The strongest evidence for a link between indoor tanning and melanoma is found among individuals who were first exposed to indoor tanning at a young age. In a combined analysis of previously published studies, individuals who had their first exposure to indoor tanning before the age of 30 were 75% more likely to develop melanoma than individuals who had no exposure to indoor tanning. Exposure to indoor tanning was linked with a more than two-fold increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.[7]

Because of the cancer risk, avoidance of tanning beds is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology,[8] the World Health Organization,[9] and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[10]

Other agents that are classified as Group 1 carcinogens include arsenic, asbestos, and tobacco smoke. UV radiation from the sun is also classified as Group 1, highlighting the importance of sun safety.


[1] Armstrong B, Cardis E, Green A et al. A review of human carcinogens—Part D: radiation. Lancet Oncology. 2009;10:751-752.

[2] Levine JA, Sorace M, Spencer J, Siegel DM. The indoor UV tanning industry: a review of skin cancer risk, health benefit claims, and regulation. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2005;53:1038-44.

[3] Demko CA, Borawski EA, Debanne SM, Cooper KD, Stange KC. Use of indoor tanning facilities by white adolescents in the United States. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2003;157:854-860.

[4] Report on Carcinogens, Eleventh Edition; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program.

[5] Agar NS, Halliday GM, Barnetson RS, Ananthaswamy HN, Wheeler M, Jones AM. The basal layer in human squamous tumors harbors more UVA and UVB fingerprint mutations: a role for UVA in human skin carcinogensis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2004;101:4954-4959.

[6] Kang S, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ. Photoaging: pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. 2001;17:643-59, v-vi.

[7] IARC Working Group. The association of use of sunbeds with cutaneous malignant melanoma and other skin cancers: a systematic review. International Journal of Cancer. 2006;120:1116-22.

[8] American Academy of Dermatology. Be Sun Smart.™ Available at: http://www.aad.org/public/sun/smart.html (Accessed July 29, 2009).

[9] World Health Organization. Global disease burden from solar ultraviolet radiation. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs305/en/index.html (Accessed July 29, 2009).

[10] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sun Safety Action Steps. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/actionsteps.html (July 29, 2009).

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