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The question: With the summer season finally here, I'm excited to work on my tan. I usually go to the tanning salon to create a base to keep my skin from burning, but I've heard some reports that it's not that safe. Is this true?

The answer: It sounds like you are concerned about protecting your skin but unfortunately, the reports are true: tanning beds can do more harm than good.

Although many people go to tanning salons to get a base tan prior to the summer months or a vacation, there is little evidence that it will protect you. In fact, it is well established that indoor tanning can increase your risk of skin damage and cancer.

The World Health Organization has found that using tanning beds before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by an alarming 75 per cent. To highlight its potential negative impact, the WHO has also placed indoor tanning in the highest-risk category of cancer causing items, the same list that also includes smoking and arsenic.

Sunlight is made up of ultraviolet rays that can damage skin, leading to premature aging and sunburns. Excess UV radiation can cause mutations in the DNA of the skin that can lead to skin cancer. Tanning beds emit UV rays as well despite reports or advertisements that may indicate otherwise. People under 35 are at higher risk of skin damage and cancer because their bodies (and cells) are changing and growing at a rapid pace Therefore, regular use of tanning beds from a young age can lead to a cumulative increased risk of developing skin cancer over time.

In order to legislate skin safety, the Canadian Dermatology Association has recommended that all tanning beds come labelled with warnings against use in those under 35 years of age. Several provinces have made it illegal for people under 18 to use tanning salons and most other provinces and territories are considering put this ban in place in the near future.

To truly protect your skin this summer, try these options instead:

  • Wear sunscreen: Pick a broad spectrum product that covers both UVA and UVB radiation. Choose one with an SPF (sun protective factor) of at least 15 or more, and if you are spending a prolonged amount of time outside, reapply liberally and regularly. If you have sensitive or fair skin, consider a SPF of at least 30.
  • Limit your time outdoors: Generally in North America, the strongest rays are between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so seek the shade during these times or limit the time you spend outdoors during this period.
  • Cover up with clothing: Long-sleeved shirts and pants can be helpful and hats with wide brims can protect the face, ears and neck. Dark clothes are more protective than light-coloured clothing.

And remember, the bottom line is this: There is no such thing as a safe tan . Exposure to UV radiation can damage your skin, regardless of whether it comes from tanning beds or sunlight. The best way to protect your skin is to follow the suggestions above and avoid using tanning beds.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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