Red skin and pain after a tanning bed session indicate some degree of tissue damage. In fact, burns and other tanning bed injuries send approximately 3,200 Americans to the emergency room every year, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Surgeon General. Not included in this estimate are milder burns that are treated at home or that are ignored because the person believes that redness and pain after indoor tanning is normal. Treatment of such burns depends on the severity of the injury.
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Tanning beds cause mild burns more often than many people realize. For example, in a study of nearly 200 college students published in 2013 in "Translational Behavioral Medicine," one in five reported pain and reddened skin within a day after a tanning bed session. These injuries, called first-degree burns, involve only the top layer of the skin and they usually heal within 72 hours. Using cold compresses, applying aloe vera or taking cool showers can help to control the pain. Your doctor might also recommend taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve).
Second-degree burns develop blisters in addition to the redness and pain. These burns are less common among indoor tanners than mild burns, but they can occasionally occur. Since broken skin increases the risk of infection, it is important to keep the blistered areas clean and covered with nonstick gauze dressings. Your doctor might recommend applying an antibiotic ointment or a burn treatment cream called silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene) to promote healing. Even with prompt treatment, healing can take more than a month and the skin may scar.
Using a tanning bed without eye protection can cause intense, burning pain in the eyes within six to 12 hours after the session. These tanning bed injuries require immediate medical attention. The treatment usually consists of eye drops, eye ointments and pain medication. If the pain lasts longer than 48 hours, you should see an ophthalmologist for further treatment.
Indoor tanning increases your risk of developing skin cancer in the future, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. While overexposure to ultraviolet light from any source can cause skin damage, a tanning bed delivers an intense dose of UV light, which is much stronger than that you would receive outdoors at high noon in the same amount of time. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends avoiding intentional tanning, indoors or outdoors, to help prevent skin cancer.