Should Guys Lay in Tanning Beds?
Winter might be here, but summer is just around the corner. It might not feel like it when a polar vortex sends Mother Nature into a tizzy, but if you’re thinking about a water-based vacation, you have to start working on your summer body now. Dad bods are fine and all in the winter, but this is summer we’re talking about here. While your first thought is probably of the gym, there’s a second issue that’s easy to overlook. You don’t want to be the pastiest guy at the pool or the beach this summer. It’s a bad look. So, you need to get some color. The question is, how should you go about it? For a lot of you, the weather won’t let you tan outside. Does that mean you have to use a tanning bed? Should you even consider it? We’re going to explore those deep and important mysteries. Today, you’re going to learn all about tanning and how men should handle it.
Should Guys Tan?
Before we answer the standing question, we have to face something a little more general. Should guys tan at all? There are some knee-jerk reactions to the question that feel right, but this is honestly one of the harder questions to face as a modern, fashionable man.
On the one hand, you can’t go around with pasty, pale skin. You’re not Queen Elizabeth I, so that look isn’t really in. On the other hand, people can get pretty judgmental about tanning. They’ll liken you to Guido or assume you’re some kind of meathead who cares more about how he looks than how he acts — all while simultaneously judging you for being too light-skinned. It’s not at all fair, but that’s how it is.
On top of all of that, tanning comes with some serious health concerns. You know it’s been linked to skin cancer. You also know that the sun can age your skin, and nobody enjoys sunburns. So, with all of that in mind, there’s still a good answer to the question. Yes, guys should tan, provided they are smart about it. As to whether or not that involves tanning beds, we’ll have to dig a little deeper.
In all, you have four tanning options. One of those four is to not tan, so we’ll admit that’s visible and mostly leave it alone. If you want some bronze color, then you really have three options: the sun, a tanning bed or a chemical tan. Each has its own pros and cons, so we’ll break them all down.
There’s this pervasive idea that natural is better than non-natural for virtually everything in life. You want natural vitamins instead of stuff synthesized in the labs. Your food should be farm-to-table instead of GMO and treated with chemical pesticides. For tanning, that philosophy would suggest that tanning under natural sunlight is inherently better than tanning in a bed or using a spray. We won’t get into the greater natural vs manmade argument, but when it comes to sunlight and tanning, there’s a lot wrong with that notion.
For starters, most of the things in this world that can kill you are completely natural: spider venom, the ocean, snow and, yes, sunlight. So, let’s throw out the assumption that sunlight is better because it’s natural. Instead, we’ll look at how sunlight works to tan your body and how that lends itself to the pros and cons.
Not all sunlight actually browns your skin. Primarily, it’s the ultraviolet (UV) rays that give you color. Sunlight has tons of stuff besides UV, including visible light, radio waves and more. Incidentally, those UV sun rays are the same rays that make solar panels work. So, you can’t tan with moonlight or under heavy cloud cover. The rules are pretty much the same.
In fact, your skin tans under the same physical principle that solar panels use to make electricity. It’s called ionizing radiation, and as scary as the “r” word can be, it’s important to understand what's happening. Ionizing radiation is light that has so much energy it can literally kick an electron off of an atom. Since we’re already being nerdy, it’s time for a bonus fact. Einstein actually won his Nobel Prize for explaining how this works.
Anyways, ionizing radiation matters to your body because it affects the cells in your skin. When enough of the melanocytes in your skin are ionized by the radiation, they produce melanin as a response. The melanin is the stuff that makes your skin darker.
So, to make all of this as simple as possible, UV radiation causes your skin to tan by triggering a chemical reaction in the skin cells. Left unchecked, that same radiation can cause sunburns and other skin problems, and all of this points to a simple fact. If sunlight can tan you, it can also hurt you.
While you already understood that principle, knowing that the same mechanism that produces melanin also causes skin damage is important.
There are so many strange beliefs people hold in regards to tanning beds. Here’s the dirty secret. The UV light used by tanning beds is an all ways physically indistinguishable from natural, solar UV. Your body can’t tell any difference. What’s really happening is that tanning beds are outputting light with enough energy to ionize electrons. That’s what matters here.
What that means is that there is no quality difference between tanning light and natural sunlight. They do the exact same thing to your skin.
So, what are the pros and cons of the two? Well, it can be a lot easier to regulate your exposure in a tanning bed. You can pick the intensity of the light (which is really important if you burn easily). You can time yourself, and when you’re done, it’s easy to immediately get out of the UV radiation. If you go tan on the beach or by a pool, you might run into a common trap. A lot of people forget to count time getting set up and leaving the sunlight towards their total exposure. That simple mistake is responsible for a lot of first burns of the season.
The primary con of tanning beds is rather surprising. A study by UConn found out that guys tend to have problems with tanning beds. It’s not a biological issue; it’s behavioral. According to the study, men who use tanning beds are at much higher risk for addictive behavior traits than guys who don’t. In particular, they tend to get addicted to tanning, and that’s not a good thing. Too much tanning is obviously bad, so it’s important to keep this con in mind. If you have an obsessive or binging personality (check your Netflix history if you aren't sure), it might be better to stay away from the beds. It’s a weird fact, but there it is.
You don’t have to use UV rays to darken your skin. You can just add pigment. It’s one of the joys of living in the 21st century. That said, chemical tans come with their own set of pros and cons. And, for clarity, we’re talking about tanning creams and sprays. There is a tanning pill, but the FDA and CDC have labeled those as extremely dangerous. They can cause liver damage, blindness, and skin hives. Let’s all agree to leave those alone, yeah?
As for the chemical tanners that don’t make you blind, they’re largely safe. We’re going to have a detailed safety talk in a minute, but according to the Mayo Clinic and the FDA, DHA-based tanners are safe, as long as you use them correctly. Inhaling or swallowing them is bad juju, but DHA has shown no links to causing cancer or skin damage. That’s a pretty big plus.
The cons of chemical tans mostly involve application and upkeep. First, they’re hard to use. They can be sticky and feel weird, and you can't get them wet at all for the first few hours. Even your own sweat can streak or otherwise ruin a chemical tan.
Another problem is that they only last 5-10 days. That’s a lot of maintenance to stay bronzed throughout the sunny season. On top of that, you’re more likely to be judged for a bad spray-on tan than for going to a tanning bed, so there’s that.
Still, for the fair-skinned, these cons might be worth skirting the risk of sunburn or long-term health effects.
Let’s Talk About Health and Safety
We’ve already addressed chemical tans, so we’re going to focus on sunlight and tanning beds at this point. Before we jump in, it’s important to understand that there are multiple potential health problems related to tanning. The one that’s probably on your mind is skin cancer. It’s an ugly reality, and we will discuss it, but we shouldn’t ignore sunburns, moles and freckles (even the harmless kind), dry skin and general skin damage. They’re all part of the potential fallout.
Beds vs the Sun
We already discussed that UV light works the same no matter the source. This is also true for the health risks associated with tanning. A bed can sunburn you just as badly as the sun can. Have you ever seen Final Destination 3? Tanning beds can cause moles, dry skin and skin damage right on par with real sunlight. As we already covered, the only real difference is in how likely the use of a bed is to affect your behavior.
There is a caveat to this. Tanning beds are consistent. You can set the power output. The sun, however, is not on a dial. UV indices can vary wildly from day to day, so if you’re tanning outside, you have to pay attention to that. The lowest UV index on the scale can burn an average person in 60 minutes. More intense sunlight can cut those numbers down to a handful of minutes. Any Phoenix resident can tell you that sunburns come fast when the sun is bright.
The Big C
All of this is bringing us to a final safety discussion. There is absolutely no scientific doubt whatsoever that UV light can cause skin cancer. It goes back to the principle of ionizing radiation. If enough electrons are knocked off of your DNA atoms, it can warp the DNA. Sometimes that just damages your skin, but sometimes it can lead to cancer, and none of us wants that.
This does not mean that being outside is going to instantly give you life-threatening cancer. Instead, it means that you need to learn some basic safety in order to protect yourself.
Doing It safely
Ok. We’ve finally made it to the crux of the discussion. We’re going to look at this from the perspective of avoiding skin cancer, but all sun damage adheres to the same principles, because it all ties back to that concept of ionizing radiation.
When it comes to radiation safety, there are two core concepts. You want to manage your exposure time and the exposure intensity. We’ll cover time first. The general rule goes like this. You want as little exposure as possible to complete your purpose. In terms of tanning, it means that you stay outside or in the bed long enough to get a little darker, but not long enough to burn. This is a great starting rule of thumb, but unfortunately, the human body is a little more complicated than this.
The problem is that it gets harder to get a sunburn as your skin turns darker. So, your first tan of the season is likely to be a good session. You’ll be worried about going too long, and you’re more likely to keep your exposure time down. That’s a good thing. But, if you’re only thinking in terms of sunburns, you’re going to gradually increase your tanning sessions. That’s bad. No matter how dark you get, the risk of skin cancer is the same. UV light doesn’t care about skin color. It ionizes atoms all the same.
The lesson here is that shorter sessions are good. If you start early in the season, you can actually just do five-minute sessions a few days a week and have a good color by the time summer is here. You don’t have to nap in a tanning bed. Short, consistent sessions are better and reduce your risk of health problems.
The second principle is intensity. In a tanning bed, you have a dial or touch screen or whatever to choose the intensity of the rays. With the sun, it’s your UV index. The rule for intensity is similar to time. You want to use the lowest intensity you can to get the job done. So, you want low-intensity, short sessions that you can do somewhat regularly. It can bronze your skin without making your doctor wince.
Lastly, the concept of intensity points us to sunblock. The point of sunblock is to limit the penetration power of UV light. The SPF rating on the bottle gives you a good idea of how well the lotion can do this job. Using sunblock is a reliable way to limit the UV intensity that is hitting your skin. That’s how it prevents sunburns, and that’s how it protects you from cancer. The lesson is simple. Use sunblock. Every time. Even in a tanning bed.
Well, that got pretty deep (and more than a little science-y). Hopefully, you learned some valuable lessons. You actually know the physics behind tanning and skin cancer. Knowing how it all works should equip you to make informed decisions. But, for those of you who skipped to the bottom, here’s the verdict. Guys should consider tanning, and tanning salons are a perfectly viable way to go about it. What matters is that you do it the smart way. Minimize your exposure time, lower the intensity, and always use sunblock. Stick to that, and you can be both sexy and healthy.