Sunbathing or Indoor Tanning: Which Is More Dangerous?

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Woman sunbathing on lounge chair at poolside

Both sunbathing and indoor tanning increase your risk of skin cancer. That’s because they expose your skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV rays damage your skin cells in a way that can lead to cancer.

Which is better? Or which is worse? Think of it this way: There is no such thing as safe indoor tanning. In fact, there's no such thing as a healthy tan.

Dangers of Outdoor Tanning

People sometimes think they look healthy if they have a "nice tan." That's actually far from the truth. Why? Because tanning is your body’s response to your skin being injured by the sun’s UV rays.

When your skin is really injured, you get sunburned. Having been sunburned often — especially early in life — greatly increases your chance of getting skin cancer later on.

People at greatest risk of developing skin cancer from sun exposure are those who have skin that burns easily and never or rarely tans. This type of skin is common in people with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, and freckles.

The best approach is to avoid sunbathing. If you need to be out in the sun for work or play, protect your skin. If you want some sun exposure to boost your vitamin D, remember that most people only need to be in the sun for 5 to 10 minutes (without sunscreen). You can also get vitamin D from your diet and from supplements.

Added Risks of Indoor Tanning

Indoor tanning involves the use of tanning beds, booths, and sunlamps. These devices are supposed to give you a tan over a short period of time. In that time, they may give you about 15 times more exposure to UV radiation than the sun.

How dangerous is indoor tanning? It is dangerous enough that the American Academy of Dermatology wants tanning equipment banned for all but medical use. Also, a number of states have made it illegal for people younger than 18 to use indoor tanning equipment.

Evidence is growing on the dangers of indoor tanning. For instance:

  • Young people who tan indoors increase their risk of getting melanoma by nearly 60%. That's the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

  • Indoor tanning devices have timers to prevent you from getting burned. However, timing devices may not be reliable. That's especially true on older equipment.

  • Many people tan indoors before going on vacation. The thinking is this will protect them from sunburn. But, an indoor tan may actually increase your risk of burning outdoors.

  • Some people who tan indoors become addicted to their tan. They will tan indoors year-round. Sunbathing is more limited. The weather and the time of year restrict sunbathing time in most parts of the country.

Some people do need to use indoor light therapy for medical reasons. For instance, it may be part of their treatment for psoriasis or other skin conditions, or for seasonal depression. But even these conditions do not provide reason for indoor tanning. If you really need to be tan, try a self-tanning product instead.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 8
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. What Are the Risk Factors for Skin Cancer? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. Indoor Tanning Is Not Safe. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  3. Dangers of Tanning. Melanoma Foundation of New England.

  4. Indoor Tanning. American Academy of Dermatology.