To Tan or Not to Tan © Royalty-Free\Corbis(To Tan or Not to Tan © Royalty-Free\Corbis )

The Indoor Tanning Association, which represents thousands of tanning salon owners across the United States, recently ran a full-page ad in The New York Times aiming to “dispel the myth that moderate exposure to ultra-violet radiation is deadly.” 

The reason? “Our membership is fed up with being constantly demonized and maligned by the sunscreen industry and dermatologists,” says Sarah Longwell, the organization’s director of communications.

Whether this demonization is fair is a matter of ongoing debate between indoor tanning advocates (primarily those who own and run tanning salons) and dermatologists (most of whom advocate shunning all forms of UV light, except in special cases). And while each side has been accused of twisting the truth to their own benefit, some statistics may speak for themselves:

  • Indoor tanning is a big business that generates about $5 billion annually in the U.S.
  • About 1 million people—70 percent of them Caucasian women aged 16 to 49—frequent a tanning salon per day.
  • Incidence of skin cancer is rising faster than that of any other type of cancer, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Each year, there are an estimated 1 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 60,000 cases of malignant melanoma.

Here, both sides weigh in on some of the most hotly contested issues in the tanning debate.

The base tan controversy

It is the position of the ITA that regular, moderate use of tanning beds is a good thing—especially if that “base tan” prevents you from burning. “Going in every day for a week—for very short periods of time—before going on vacation is going to protect your body from that shock of going into the sun for the first time after a winter of no exposure,” says Longwell.

While dermatologists agree that burning is bad—numerous studies have linked incidence of bad sunburns with increased skin cancer risk—few agree with premise that the solution is to get more UV exposure. “A base tan is giving you a false sense of security that you won’t burn, but in fact, a base tan provides only about the sunscreen equivalent of SPF 3,” says Joel Cohen, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at University of Colorado. “So not only is it providing very little protection, maintaining that tan requires exposing yourself to more and more UV radiation.”  The better solution: Cohen urges people not only to wear sunscreen, but also not to spend their vacation days simply baking on the beach.

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Getting your vitamin D

Studies linking vitamin D with decreased rates of bone fractures, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, and various types of cancer, have further complicated the controversy over whether tanning is good or bad for you. And there is plenty of compelling evidence that getting more vitamin D is a positive thing. An article published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the issue and concluded that although “a significant fraction of cutaneous malignant melanomas is related to sun exposure,”  “There may be more beneficial than adverse effects of moderately increased sun exposure.”

Other studies, however, have concluded that dietary sources—in addition to the several minutes of incidental sun exposure most people get daily—are the better way to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. “Daily intake of two glasses of fortified milk or orange juice or one standard vitamin supplement is enough to generate normal vitamin D levels,” Cohen says. “I would recommend getting your vitamin D from your diet and your tan from a bottle.”