Are Tanning Beds Really as Dangerous as Arsenic and Mustard Gas?

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August 18, 2009 | 150,970 views

International cancer experts have moved tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation into the top cancer risk category, deeming both to be definite causes of cancer.

For years, scientists have described tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation as "probable carcinogens."

A new analysis of about 20 studies concludes the risk of skin cancer jumps by 75 percent when people start using tanning beds before age 30.

Cogliano said the classification means experts are confident that tanning beds cause cancer, but he noted they may not be as potent as other carcinogens like tobacco or arsenic.

According to the studies reviewed by Cogliano and colleagues, using tanning beds caused about a 20 percent increased relative risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer.

Cogliano said it was impossible to know how many benign skin cancers might be caused by tanning beds, because of complicating factors like exposure to regular sunlight. He and colleagues examined data from more than 7,000 melanoma cases and found a strong association between tanning bed use and the disease. He compared the link to that found between tobacco and lung cancer.

Vitamin D Dose Recommendations
Age Dosage
Below 5 35 units per pound per day
Age 5 - 10 2500 units
Age 18 - 30 5000 units
Pregnant Women 5000 units
WARNING: There is no way to know if the above recommendations are correct. The ONLY way to know is to test your blood. You might need 4-5 times the amount recommended above. Ideally your blood level of 25 OH D should be 60ng/ml.


The latest press release about ultraviolet radiation and tanning beds being deemed "definite causes of cancer" was based on an IARC group meeting, NOT on a new study. As the Indoor Tanning Association stated in its recent press release:

"Media reports comparing indoor tanning to toxins like mustard gas, cigarettes, and arsenic are outrageously overhyped. The same "group 1" category includes red wine, salted fish, and regular sunlight -- so these sensational headlines are as absurd as saying 'A glass of merlot is as deadly as mustard gas.'"

The encouraging part is, the issue of sunlight and vitamin D is becoming a hot topic, and new studies and articles are appearing all the time.

Michael F. Holick of the Boston University School of Medicine stated:

"The sun has been demonized for years and as a result, people have avoided any direct exposure to sunlight. I think that's the wrong message."

How to Critically Analyze News Stories That Don't Make Any Sense

So let's get back to this study, and allow me to teach you how to tear apart scary stories you read in the media that seem to be in direct conflict with common sense

First you want to look for some type of financial incentive. If you do that with this story you will see it in spades. This type of negative press about tanning has been occurring for a long time, especially every summer and winter.

Why summer?

So the lotion manufactures, selling outdoor lotions with SPFs, Sunless Bronzers, and Moisturizers with SPF can scare the heck out of the public and cause them to be sun phobic, which encourages them to purchase and use these products.

Occasionally the financial bias will be in who funded the study. I did not research that aspect in this story as there was a clear and obvious link based on history.

Bias of IARC Investigators Was Evident From the Start

Next, you want to look for sources of bias in the research. Bias is a very common error in writing and interpreting scientific studies.

So I carefully reviewed the original study that is referenced above, and discovered that their recommendations were based on ONE study that was published two years ago.

In turn, this study based its conclusion on yet another study, published even earlier.

So when you go back to the ORIGINAL research, you discover what I did: that they were basing their findings on a heavily biased report.

Consider the very first sentence of the "authoritative study" by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) -- serving as the underlying premise for their conclusion that tanning beds are dangerous:

"Exposure to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a known cause of skin cancer."

It is quite clear that these scientists began their literature review with the belief that sunlight is a well-established source of cancer, and that you should avoid sunlight if you want to decrease your skin cancer risk.

This is as glaring an example of researcher bias as I have ever seen.

The group obviously bought into this commonly held but false belief about ultraviolet radiation that has been circulated for decades, instead of looking at data that was outside of their own bias.

What's Left Out is as Important as What's Left In

Many times what is not mentioned is even more important that what is -- and that is certainly the case here.

This investigative group cited studies documenting how UVB can damage DNA.

However, they failed to EVER mention how UVB exposure is HEALTHY by stimulating the production of vitamin D, which regulates 2-3,000 genes and decreases cancers overall by 50-60 percent.

So, while it is true that excessive UVB exposure will increase the risk of skin cancer and result in some loss of lives, it is even more relevant for health and longevity to understand that inappropriate avoidance of the sun will result in depressed vitamin D levels, which will result in far more deaths.

Studies show that, for every person who dies of skin cancer from UVB overexposure, more than two hundred will die from other cancers, like lung, breast, prostate and colon, as a result of low vitamin D levels. Moderate exposure to ultraviolet radiation is the only way to prompt your body to manufacture the vitamin D it needs to keep you healthy.

We all have to accept some risk in life. Just driving to work or the grocery store you might get killed by some nitwit who is texting. Yet you accept that risk because using your car offers a greater benefit to you.

Same with sun exposure, there is clearly some risk, but it is incomprehensibly low compared to the benefits you receive.

This scientific group also neglected to mention that pre-existing studies do not take into consideration skin type, history of sun exposure, genetic or nutritional factors.

According to Doug McNabb, the head of a Canadian tanning bed company:

"If you're to take skin type 1 and 2 out of the equation, those being people with red hair and blue eyes and then reddish brown and brown eyes -- if you take those out of the data -- the number pretty much goes to zero in terms of the risk of a tanning bed as a carcinogen."

It is abundantly clear and obvious to me that if everyone exercised prudent judgment about their sun and tanning bed exposure, and had plenty of antioxidants from vegetables, fruits and/or supplements, they could virtually eliminate their risk of skin cancer.

Blatant Omission!

Interestingly, the primary study being used to support the conclusion that tanning beds are "as dangerous as arsenic" states the following:

"No epidemiological study has been able to explore in a rigorous way amounts of UVA and UVB received by indoor tanning users."

So, even though some studies have been done, NOT ONE rigorous scientific study supports their statement. The ONLY conclusion they could reach was that use of indoor tanning devices was associated with increased risk of melanoma in those who began using the devices before age 30.

Tanning Beds are Not the Culprits Here

Even though there is clearly NO SUPPORT or justification for the sensationalist report that prompted this response, there are some concerns with tanning beds, which will be expanded upon in the next few sections:

  1. The first issue is the dose of UV you're getting from your tanning bed, which the IARC researchers do attempt to address.
  2. The second issue is EMF exposure, of which the researchers are most likely ignorant because they fail to mention it entirely.

Dosing: Too Much of a Good Thing is Still Too Much

As for UV dosing, you don't want to exceed the level of exposure that you would typically receive from natural sunshine. Vitamin D is optimized when your skin has just turned the slightest bit pink. Optimal UV exposure varies with skin color, location and time of year.

Tanning is your body's natural protection against sunburn; it's what your body was created to do. Some physicians falsely refer to tanning as "skin damage," but calling a tan "damage" isn't telling the whole story.

In an apt analogy used by the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA), calling a tan "damaged skin" is much like saying that exercise "damages muscles." When you exercise, you are actually tearing tiny muscle fibers in your body. At first glance, when examined at the micro-level, this tearing could be called "damage." But this tissue breakdown is your body's natural way of building stronger muscle tissue.

Similarly, tanning is your skin's natural way of protecting you from the dangers of sunburn and further exposure. So, be it from the sun or from an indoor tanning device, avoiding sunburn is crucial.

It is the burning of your skin and chronic excessive exposures -- not the limited, sensible exposure to ultraviolet light or sunlight -- that increases your risk for skin cancer.

FDA Offers Guidelines For Safe Dosing of Tanning Devices

The FDA strictly controls the indoor tanning industry by setting standards for proper use of equipment -- they have endorsed indoor tanning devices as safe. All tanning equipment manufacturers must use the same set of guidelines so that UV exposure levels are standardized.

The FDA uses a unit called "one erythemal dose" as a means of calibration for the indoor tanning industry -- which is just a fancy word for one tanning session.

One erythemal dose equates to the amount of time it takes for a tanning device to produce erythema (slight pinkening of your skin), and this erythema indicates you have achieved a safe dose of UV -- which translates to an optimal dose of vitamin D.

One erythemal dose differs for each person based on skin type and strength of lamps -- just as a safe "dose" of sunshine differs for people based on their skin type, geographic location, and time of day.

The FDA also makes recommendations about how often you should receive a dose, stating you should wait 24-48 hours between doses. The reason for this is that it takes at least 24 hours for the erythema to go away.

The FDA's exposure schedule can be described as CONTROLLED SUNSHINE, making it a very safe way to receive the benefits of the sun while indoors. Once you have a base tan, you can then enjoy more time in the sun without burning, and in that respect, you receive some protection that you would not otherwise have.

The obvious question any discerning reader would ask is this:

"If tanning units definitely do cause cancer, why would the FDA have laws for compliance and safety for consumers"?

EMF Exposure

The second issue, of which the researchers were probably unaware, is the EMF exposure from most tanning beds. Most tanning equipment, and nearly all of the early beds from which these studies were conducted, use magnetic ballasts to generate light. These magnetic ballasts are well known sources of EMF fields that can contribute to cancer.

If you hear a loud buzzing noise while in a tanning bed, it has a magnetic ballast system.

I strongly recommend you avoid these types of beds and restrict your use of tanning beds to those that use electronic ballasts.

Tanning and Skin Cancer

If you are a long-time reader, you already know there is a growing body of solid scientific research demonstrating that the production of the activated form of vitamin D is one of the most effective ways your body controls abnormal cell growth.

Several researchers, most notably Dr. William Grant, have published peer-reviewed articles demonstrating that in America, for example, increased sun exposure would result in 185,000 fewer annual cases of internal cancer and 30,000 fewer deaths from cancer of the breast, ovaries, colon, prostate, bladder, uterus, esophagus, rectum and stomach.

By comparison, about 7,500 people die each year from skin cancer.

Skin cancer has a 20- to 30-year latency period. The rates of skin cancer we see today are most likely the result of bad habits from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that were based on ignorance and misinformation about sun tanning.

In those days, many people still considered sunburns a mere nuisance, a necessary prerequisite to a summer tan. Severe burns were commonplace. Today we know how reckless and uninformed that approach was.

Skin cancer is not simply the product of cumulative sun exposure. It is multifactorial, a complex thing involving genetics, nutritional status, history of overexposure, and type of exposure.

In order to understand skin cancer risk, an important distinction must be made between UVA and UVB radiation. These two primary forms of ultraviolet radiation have different wavelengths, and impact your body in different ways.

UVB is the only form that will stimulate your production of vitamin D, in the form of D3.

UVA is the part that causes you to tan, but is also the part that can cause cancerous mutations in your skin, including melanoma. UVA actually destroys some of the vitamin D formed in your skin by the UVB.

UVA has a longer wavelength, so it penetrates materials more easily, including the earth's atmosphere and window glass. Window glass will effectively filter out the majority of UVB radiation while allowing most of the UVA to pass through.

The significance of this is, if you are indoors near a window -- like in your office, home or car -- you get the UVA but virtually none of the beneficial UVB. This can lead to increased oxidative stress and accelerates aging of your skin.

The fact that we are modern day cavemen (now behind windows) is one of the reasons why malignant melanoma has been increasing exponentially among indoor workers for the past half century.

Normally, of course, when you tan from outdoor sun exposure, you're getting both UVA and UVB so there is a "check and balance" system, optimizing your vitamin D levels while preventing you from overdosing on vitamin D.

What is important to stress here is that you can actually get vitamin D without significantly darkening your skin, since the UVB wavelength does not stimulate the melanin pigment that produces a tan. I offer UV devices on my website that do just that -- they emit the beneficial UVB but none of the UVA, so the tanning and skin aging side effects are eliminated.

So, given the complexities of human biology and ultraviolet light, claiming that skin cancer is due solely to ultraviolet light is a gross and dangerous oversimplification.

Dispelling Myths About Melanoma

Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, accounts for less than 5 percent of the newly diagnosed skin cancers each year. It is now known that melanomas are not simply caused by too much UV.

Melanoma does not fit the mold of other skin cancers for the following reasons:

  • Melanoma is more common in people who work indoors than in those who work outdoors.

  • Melanoma most commonly appears on parts of your body that do not receive regular exposure to sunlight—and rarely occurs on your face.

Because people who receive regular exposure to outdoor sunlight get fewer melanomas, it makes no sense to say that ultraviolet light causes melanoma.

Some studies suggest that the key risk factor for melanoma is an individual's genetic susceptibility to sunburn itself, not the actual incidence of sunburn. Furthermore, to date, no well-designed studies support the connection between melanoma and UV exposure from tanning beds.

This fact is significant, considering most of the studies did not account for confounding variables such as outdoor exposure to sunlight, childhood sunburns, the type of tanning equipment used, and the duration and quantity of exposures.

Who's Behind This Public Deception?

The negative press about sun exposure and tanning is more than simple ignorance or lack of education on the part of government agencies and scientists. The truth is out there to be found, for those who want to find it.

It again boils down to blatant greed.

Multi-million-dollar corporations enjoy enormous profits from the products they sell to allay your fears. They create the fear so that they can sell you their solution:

  • Suntan lotions and creams

  • Sunless bronzers

  • Moisturizers with SPF

  • Sun-protective clothing

  • Anti-aging skin care

Think about how the ads for these products abound in winter and early spring when people worldwide flock to sunny climates for long-awaited vacations. This is the peak season for indoor tanning as well, and the market forces take full advantage.

Consider the money to be made in a pairing between suntan lotion manufacturers and the travel industry—airlines, cruise lines, and the like.

What about the automobile industry -- what vehicle today doesn't come with a sunroof? The average American spends 10 percent of his life in a car -- so by the time you are 40, you've spent 4 years of your life behind car windows, selectively soaking up that UVA.

Big Industry knows you will never give up your sunshine, and they've learned how to capitalize on it by creating a "sun-phobia" -- with a lot of help from Big Pharma and the AMA.

It's all about the money.

What Can You Do?

I strongly encourage you to study the evidence and reach your own conclusions. Be very careful about accepting some abbreviated summary that is widely disseminated in the media. If the study contradicts common sense be highly skeptical as it likely a flawed study, no matter how many media sources are promoting it.

This has happened many dozens of times in my medical career and there are many books written about this.

If you want more information please use the search engine box at the top of every page on this site to locate more information to review. You can also read my book Dark Deception: Discover the Truth About the Benefits of Sunlight Exposure, which brings to light the myths about sunlight that government and big business continue to spread. (There is a free excerpt of Chapter One at the above link.)

Government agencies and big corporations will continue to grossly overstate the risks of sunlight, while ignoring evidence of its benefits. Please avoid these scare tactics so you and your family won't be deceived or manipulated anymore.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References