Could Tanning Beds Be a Safe Source of Vitamin D?

October 14th, 2009

Tanning BedAs more people begin to realize the importance of vitamin D, natural sun exposure is becoming more widely accepted as a critical aspect of a healthy lifestyle. This raises a question that many tanning enthusiasts are likely to ask. Could tanning beds be a healthy source of vitamin D as well?

What About Skin Cancer?

The primary reason why people avoid tanning, whether it be in the natural sunlight or in a tanning bed, is because of it’s association with skin cancer. However, this doesn’t make much sense when you consider that melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is most prevalent among indoor workers and is most commonly found on the areas of the body that are exposed to sun the least.

Research on vitamin D is beginning to validate the importance of natural sunlight and prove that sun exposure is critical to good health. This also presents the possibility of tanning beds not only being safer than previously believed, but also being a potentially valuable source of vitamin D.

In 2006, a review of 19 studies on the effects of tanning beds showed a strong correlation between melanoma and the usage of tanning beds, especially when usage started before the age of 35. However, not all tanning beds are created equal, and there’s a good chance that it’s still possible to use a tanning bed without incurring this risk.

The Less Obvious Dangers of Tanning Beds

Electromagnetic radiation is unfortunately a topic that gets only a fraction of the attention that it deserves. However, enough research has been done for us to know that it’s a significant risk.

Melanoma was rare before the 1950s, but between the years of 1975 and 1992, the number of cases in the United States tripled. According to Dr. Robert Becker, the author of Cross Currents, the highest incidence of melanoma in the United States was at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. This lab is involved with the testing of exotic military weapons, and according to research done in 1977, the incidence of melanoma among it’s employees was noticeably high in comparison to the surrounding area. According to Dr. Becker, some employees were routinely exposed to magnetic fields much larger than what we now know to be dangerous.

A tanning bed typically contains between 24 to 60 bulbs that are between 100 and 200 watts each. The power needed to run these bulbs, which amounts to a total of between 2,400 and 12,000 watts, is typically supplied by a magnetic ballast that can be just inches away from the person in the tanning bed and expose them to a very strong magnetic field. As such, it’s very possible that the cancer risks associated with tanning beds are more a result of electromagnetic radiation than ultraviolet light.

Another significant concern regarding many tanning beds is that they’re designed to emit minimal amounts of UVB radiation. This is desirable for tanning bed manufacturers because it promotes faster tanning with less risk of burning. However, UVB is the most beneficial component of natural sunlight because it’s what provokes the skin to produce vitamin D. Furthermore, UVA can actually destroy the vitamin D produced by the skin and is also believed to be more of a risk for melanoma.

Can Tanning Beds Be Part of a Healthy Lifestyle?

Vitamin D controls the expression of more than 2,000 of our genes. It also plays a critical role in the prevention of cancer growth which is only one of it’s many important functions. Since a tanning bed can be a significant source of vitamin D, it also has the potential to support good health, but before you get excited about the prospect of tanning during the winter, there are a few important factors to consider.

A tanning bed must emit UVB radiation for it to provoke vitamin D production, and ideally, the amount of UVB should be similar to that of mid day sunlight. This means that you’ll have to be more careful about sunburn. It’s also very important to avoid the strong electromagnetic radiation associated with some tanning beds by using one that’s powered by electronic ballasts. These ballasts typically produce a smaller magnetic field than the commonly used magnetic ballasts, but keep in mind that the resulting it may still be large enough to pose a risk.

Getting sun exposure on a regular basis without burning and without the use of sunscreen is obviously the most natural way to obtain vitamin D. It’s probably the healthiest and most effective way as well. For people who are unable to enjoy regular exposure to natural sunlight, the use of a tanning bed could arguably be a more natural source of vitamin D than oral supplementation. Vitamin D can be dangerous in excessive amounts, and because the skin regulates how much of it is produced from UVB radiation, there is less risk of obtaining excessive amounts of vitamin D from a tanning bed as there is from a supplement. However, because it may still be possible to acquire too much vitamin D from a tanning bed, or even natural sunlight, it’s still important to be judicious about the amount of time that you spend tanning.

Is it Worth the Risk?

The potential for tanning beds to be a healthy source of vitamin D is likely to excite the many people who’d like to maintain a nice tan throughout the entire year. However, we haven’t spent millions of years evolving under the bulbs of tanning beds like we have with natural sunlight which means that there’s still a significant potential for unknown risks. For someone who needs to correct or prevent a vitamin D deficiency, I think the use of a tanning bed is a potential alternative to vitamin D supplementation, but I don’t think the risk is justified when the only motivation is a darker tan. In such a case, you may very well be risking your health for appearance.

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