The Cost of Tanning


It's right around this time of year, as friends and family gear up for Mexican vacations while I stay put under Seattle's gloomy skies, that my thoughts turn to sunbathing. God, I love sunbathing. It's so fun. It's downright addictive. Whether outside or under a tanning lamp, working on a tan is one of the most relaxing ways to pass the time. Of course, it's also the reason that I have to go to the doctor and get layers of skin chemically peeled off of my face in an attempt to regain the clarity and balanced skin tone that I enjoyed before I started tanning.

Tanning has a lot of hidden costs. You think that your high-pressure bed is worth $40 for 20 minutes of basking in its purpley glow?

According to Business Wire, in 2003:

10% of Americans spend on average $300 per year to tan indoors. This equates to a total U.S. market for tanning of over $9 billion per year, and does not include the $3 billion tanning products market. Enhancements in technology and consumer acceptance are fueling the industry's growth.

What’s the real cost of time in a tanning bed? Well, it ranges from place to place, but when I started tanning for three months a couple of years ago, you could say that the breakdown went something like this:

3-month high-pressure tanning package: $600
Tanning goggles: $4
Years of painful treatments in a possibly futile attempt to regain skin’s natural color and elasticity: Priceless

I tanned a couple of times a week in a high-pressure tanning bed that was touted as “safe” and “effective” by the owner of the salon I joined. Because the intense UVA rays provide a deep, dark, and fast tan without much burning, even for someone with extremely fair skin like myself, tanning beds are offered up as a great way to tan without unsightly third degree burns.

It sounded alright to me. I mean, if you don’t burn, then it’s all good, right? Burning must be what causes cancer, right?

(You know that annoying buzzer sound that goes off when a game show contestant guesses wrong? I’m making that sound right now, but you can’t hear me.)

UVB rays do cause burns, but UVA rays have a longer wavelength, so they penetrate deeper. While exposure to UVA rays in a tanning bed will provide a tan without the burn, the UVA rays are still causing untold damage to your skin and your skin cells’ DNA. Here's something to keep in mind: a tan is a sign of damage. I know we associate it with glowing health, because you tan if you are outside, and people who spend time outside are healthy, right?


A suntan is the result of injury to the epidermis, the top layer of your skin. A tan develops when UV light accelerates the production of melanin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives your skin its normal color. The extra melanin — produced to protect the deeper layers of your skin — creates the darker color of a "tan." A suntan is your body's way of blocking out the ultraviolet rays to prevent further injury to the skin, but the protection only goes so far.

My dermatologist, who treated me before and after I did the stint in the tanning booth, thinks that I did roughly five to seven years of skin damage in those few months. Although I don’t look drastically different from a normal distance, if you get a good look at my skin, it really is damaged. Problems include premature wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, and broken capillaries. Freckles change shape whenever they feel like it, sending me scrambling to the doctor for tests.

I haven't ever had a cancerous growth, but my doctor seems to think that my chances are pretty good. I never wore sunscreen growing up, although now I slather it on like it's water from the fountain of youth.

Think that the risk of skin cancer is overblown? Well, not according to the National Cancer Institute:

Women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55% more likely to develop malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than one million people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in the United States every year. In fact, non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country. 40% to 50% of Americans who live to age 65 will have this form of skin cancer at least once. These are startling statistics for a cancer that can, for the most part, be prevented.

I’m not just being a mean old lady when I try to convince younger women that tanning is a bad idea. I don’t object to tan skin — I just think that we’ll all be a lot happier, in the long run, if we get it out of a bottle than in a booth. So if you are considering some time burning your hide for the sake of fashion, I beg of you, consider some of the new and excellent tans-in-a-bottle out there. They're cheap, they moisturize your skin, and you'll be thanking yourself when you arrive at your 35th high school reunion looking younger than everyone else (except, perhaps, the members of the Science Olympiad).

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Sarah Winfrey's picture

Fabulous article...I never understand why people keep tanning.

But the funny thing?  The ads are all for tanning beds!! 

Andrea Karim's picture

I guess there's not a lot of money to be made in the "stay in the shade and read a good book" industry. Maybe palapas will take off here?

Will Chen's picture

Wow.  Perhaps more people should read your article about curbing vanity.  Then again, I live in Southern California so maybe I take my chiseled, bronzed, and well-oiled body for granted.

Lynn Truong's picture

the US was sooooo slow in adopting the idea that UVA rays are bad for you. they kept saying "uvb burns. that means it's worse." europe had long been coming out w/sunblock that protected against uva while the US were still sitting on their SPF factor. so the most important thing to look for when shopping for sunblock is that it's "broad" or "full" spectrum. full spectrum isn't that big of deal since it claims to block uvc rays that can't reach us (absorbed through the atmosphere). but then again... who knows. maybe in another 10 years they'll be saying uvc rays actually do reach us and those are the MOST deadly.

skin girl wrote a good article about the specific ingredients in sunblock to look for that are most effective against uva rays as well as a few other things to protect against the sun besides wearing sunblock, like tinting your car window and using a sunblock additive to your clothes - not sure if i'd go that far just yet though.

Andrea Karim's picture

I guess I hate to second the "Europeans once again beat us to the punch" story once again, but yeah, I heard you can get really high SPFs in Europe that are unavailable here because the FDA has yet to approve them.

Will, when I first put the blogpost together, I ended up with a huge, 4-page tangent about curbing vanity and accepting my glow-in-the-dark skin as beautiful enough, but then I realized that the whole reason I was freaking out about tanning was because it was prematurely aging me, which was all about my vanity. So, I let it go. Because there are some things that I am always going to be vain about.

Guest's picture

I've been a huge fan of NOT tanning. In fact, I've probably spent more on SPF products than hair products, in the hope of tanning LESS.

I also slather on the SPF 20 moisturizer, and sometimes wear an SPF on top of that (rarely though, as it starts to roll/flake off in a very unattractive way). And make sure my makeup has some SPF in it, no matter that the Sephora girl tells me: SPF is just a myth, it wears off in an hour.

I'm also trying to get my friends to really take care of their skin sun-wise, but have since given up. In 20 years, I'll look super young, while they'll have leathery skin, and that, is priceless. ;)

Guest's picture


Guest's picture


Guest's picture

Good Article ! Tanning could turn out costly to you
The sun's rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that reach your skin: UVA and UVB. UVB radiation burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing sunburns.

UVA radiation is what makes people tan. UVA rays penetrate to the lower layers of the epidermis, where they trigger cells called melanocytes (pronounced: mel-an-oh-sites) to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning.

Melanin is the body's way of protecting skin from burning. Darker-skinned people tan more deeply than lighter-skinned people because their melanocytes produce more melanin. But just because a person doesn't burn does not mean that he or she is also protected against skin cancer and other problems.
Beds for Sale

Guest's picture

It is very true about the leathery skin, i am only 21 and my friend has been tanning since she was in 7th grade. they used to have a tanning bed in their house. well now her skin is very very rough!! and she has to put lotion on herself like 5x day. So all i know is it makes your skin scaley and dry.

Guest's picture

Well before everyone goes on about tanning is the problem. Take a look at what Doctors were telling us less then 20 years ago about Tabocco. So if we were miss informed once don't you think it could happen again. If you think about things like the fact if you took oxygen, water, sun and food away things would be cease to live. How about all Vitamin D deficancy thats going on right now the best way to get Vit. D is from sun. So before everyone goes on about how tanning is going to kill you and cause cancer get a few facts like, your bodies natural defense against sun is tanning, or that overexposure (sunburning) of your skin is the problem.
Take a look at the environmental workings groups ( website and the testing they have done on sunscreen. How about the fact the FDA hasn't put any regulation on tanning products since the 70's. Look up oxybenzone one of the ingredients used in sunscreen, remember that when you lather yourself up in chemical sunscreen. Learn what the SPF numbers really mean and how maybe they are deceiving you. Everyone is only willing to hear what is being spoken instead of going and looking up the facts themselves.
As far as Europe they may lead the way, but they are also beginning to waver on some of there anti sun ideas also. Watch and see what happens in the next few years.
Do as you please but before you keep slamming something natural get all the facts. Goggle Dr. John Cannell, or vitamin D council. Just look before you close your mind and continue to get misled.

Guest's picture

Great article... I was considering tanning for the first time, and these are all the resons I needed to be reminded of. However, being a redhead... I have to say the dig at freckles was unnecessary.

Andrea Karim's picture

As a fellow redhead, I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. Half of the article talks about my freckles.

Guest's picture

A tan is the body's natural protection mechanism from UV light. It seems like a given perhaps, that UV, whether from the sun or a lamp, the skins response will be similar. If you forget this while tanning, you will be like the person who wrote this article. Ultimately, burns are what cause cancer, whether outside or in a booth. Tanning is to protect you from burns - to build your natural SPF. There is a reason why darker nationalities and certain skin types don't burn as easily as white skin types... more melanin, more protection. Never forget that.

Guest's picture

you didn't mention if you used lotion or not in your column, your skin will age significantly if you did not, if you did use indoor tanning lotion was it good quality? In door tanning is extremely safe when you tan smart. Please don't think I am saying you didn't but you openly admitted that you never used SPF while you where growing up, so how can you blame tanning in a controlled environment? I really don't know of a single person that can positively blame a tanning bed for cancer, just my thoughts...

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