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Why Just One Indoor Tanning Session Is Bad for You

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It's that time of year: weddings, bathing suits and backyard barbecues. That means people are working out, dieting, scheduling hair and makeup appointments and shopping for the perfect outfit to make sure they look their best for these events.

While all of those rituals are rather harmless, there's one thing people may do to try to improve their appearance that is proven to negatively impact their health: indoor tanning. A tan, whether you get it outside or in a tanning bed, damages your skin. Not only does exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation cause wrinkles, brown spots and signs of premature aging, it can also lead to skin cancer.

[Read More: 7 Things Everyone Should Know About Sunscreen]

In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports that just one indoor tanning session per year, especially in high school and college, increases your risk of developing melanoma by 20 percent, with each additional session during the same year raising the risk by almost another 2 percent. After six or more indoor-tanning sessions, the risk of melanoma soars to 73 percent. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer -- it develops in the cells called melanocytes that produce melanin, which is the pigment that gives your skin its tan color.

There are two types of UV radiation that penetrate your skin: UVB and UVA. UVB rays penetrate the top layers of your skin and are typically what cause sunburns. UVA rays penetrate into the deeper layers of your skin. Both of these types of UV radiation damage your skin and can lead to skin cancer. Tanning salons use lamps that emit both types, though predominantly UVA. A tan is your skin's reaction to being exposed to UV rays.

Your skin recognizes this exposure as an "insult," and it acts in self-defense by producing more melanin. Over time, regardless if it's from sunlight or from a tanning bed, it's this damage that leads to prematurely aged skin and skin cancer. It is important for people to realize that there is no safe way to get a tan.

A common misconception is that achieving a base tan will prevent burning or worse damage. While a base tan may help protect against burning, the tan itself is evidence of damage and won't make a difference when it comes to avoiding melanoma. Damage is taking place, even if skin isn't red.

[Read More: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid]

Some young people believe skin cancer and melanoma is simply a spot or mole that can be removed, which may be one of the reasons they justify tanning. However, it can become much more serious than that. If you catch and treat melanoma early, it is almost always curable. But if it isn't, it can advance and spread to other parts of the body, making it hard to treat and possibly fatal.

Avoiding tanning beds is just one of the ways you can prevent melanoma, but that doesn't mean you have to go without a tanned look for special events. There are so many options out there now to create a bronzed appearance without compromising your health or damaging your skin. Self-tanners and professional airbrush tans are healthier options to look golden without exposing your skin to harmful UV rays.

--Dr. Long

Readers -- Have you ever gotten an indoor tan? Did you know that indoor tanning was so dangerous? What steps do you take to protect your skin? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Paul Long, M.D., is a dermatologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. He received his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College and has been in practice for 39 years. 

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