Tanning Beds and Vitamin D

Indoor tanning increases vitamin D levels, but it comes with some risks.

The use and safety of tanning beds has been hotly debated for years, with strong opinions on both sides. The use of tanning beds to increase vitamin D is an even more controversial subject; while some claim that proper levels of vitamin D are vital to a healthy immune system, others point to the dangerous UVA and UVB rays tanning beds emit.

How Tanning Beds Work

Tanning salons typically offer two ways to tan; a bed, or a stand-up capsule. Both contain fluorescent bulbs that emit UVA and UVB rays to tan the skin. UVB light stimulates cells in the epidermis called melanocytes to produce the pigment melanin, according to online magazine Pink Fridge. The UVA light oxidizes the melanin, which darkens the skin by producing a yellowish or brownish color, depending on skin tone. It takes several sessions in a tanning bed to produce a darker skin tone, according to Pink Fridge.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin produced when sunlight reacts with the skin, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D is essential for absorbing calcium and maintaining normal blood levels of phosphorus and calcium, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can help to prevent rickets in children and osteomalacia and osteoporosis in adults. Some studies have also shown that it’s likely to help to prevent high blood pressure, several autoimmune diseases, and even lung cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Vitamin D is also present in a few foods, such as cod liver oil, fatty fish, eggs and fortified milk and cereal. The Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that most adults get 200 IUs of the vitamin per day, with the intake level increasing after age 50.

Tanning Beds and Vitamin D

Because tanning beds mimic natural sunlight, they cause the skin to produce vitamin D. When the UVB rays from tanning beds strike the skin directly, cholecalciferol, or vitamin D, is rapidly created and transported to the liver. According to VitaminDCouncil.org, if you stay in the sun, or a tanning bed, until your skin begins to turn pink you can make between 10,000 and 50,000 IUs of vitamin D.

In Support of Tanning Beds

Proponents of tanning beds claim that the benefits of high levels of vitamin D far outweigh the risk of developing skin cancer from tanning, according to 2005 article in USA Today titled “Vitamin D Research May Have Doctors Prescribing Sunshine.” A study highlighted in the article claims that vitamin D can actually stifle abnormal cell growth and the formation of blood vessels that feed tumors, which in turn can help to prevent a smattering of cancers. The study also claims that while there is a risk of developing skin cancer when exposed to UVA and UVB rays, skin cancer is rarely fatal and even the most deadly form, melanoma, only accounts for a small percentage of deaths due to cancer.

Against Tanning Beds

Opponents of tanning beds point to the high risk of developing skin cancer by using them, and the ability to get vitamin D in other ways. In 1992 tanning beds were rated as “probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but in July 2009 that rating was increased to “carcinogenic to humans,” which is the highest cancer-risk category, according to a 2009 Time Magazine article titled “Assessing the Risks of Tanning Beds.” This rating puts tanning beds on the same level as radon gas, plutonium and radium. An IARC study also claims that people who begin using tanning beds before age 30 increase their risk of developing skin cancer by 75 percent, according to the article.