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tanning bed usage and eye health

If you use tanning beds, ensure you do all you can to protect your eyes. In addition to significantly increasing tanning bed users’ chances of skin cancer, the process also increases your risk of developing lifelong issues affecting eye health and vision.

If we had our way, patients wouldn’t ever use tanning beds due to the beds’ classification as a Group 1 Carcinogen, meaning they’re in the highest cancer risk category. 

Tanning Bed Usage Posts A Serious Risk To Vision Health

Tanning beds function by providing high doses of UV rays in timed increments. As optometrists and ophthalmologists, we maintain a pretty united front warning patients of tanning bed dangers. 

Harmful UV Rays Are More Powerful

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), tanning beds can produce UV levels up to 100 times what you would get from the sun. This can cause severe damage to the external and internal structures of the eye and eyelids.

UV rays damage cells and their DNA. UV-related cell damage leads to sunburns, sun spots, skin cancers, and other UV-related damage. Your eyes are also particularly vulnerable to harmful UV rays, which show up via eye irritation, sensitivity, anatomical changes like pinguecula or pterygium, and other eye conditions that cause permanent vision loss or blindness. 

Skincancer.org’s post, 5 Myths of Indoor Tanning Busted…, states:

Some indoor tanning aficionados say that because tanning machines use mostly UVA light, tanning that way is safer than lying in the sun. Not true…we now know that its longer wavelength penetrates the skin more deeply and is strongly linked to melanoma. One study observing 63 women diagnosed with melanoma before age 30 found that 61 of them (97 percent) had used tanning beds. 

Shutting Your Eyes Is Not Enough

Shutting your eyes is not enough to protect them from harmful UV rays. 

You can get skin cancer on your eyelids

First, your eyelids are still exposed, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer on your eyelids. This includes melanoma carcinomas, which can spread if not caught early enough.

Secondly, the very small, goggle-like protectors handed out at sun tanning beds need to be bigger to provide the level of UV protection recommended by medical professionals. 

UV rays penetrate the eyelids

The eyelids are the body’s natural eye protectors but are very thin. UV rays go right through the eyelids. So, while closing your eyes in the presence of sunlight or tanning beds minimizes UV exposure to a point, the eyes are still directly affected by the UV rays that pass through the eyelids. 

Your eyes may get sunburned

Your eyes can get sunburned in the tanning booth even with your eyes shut and while donning the provided protective goggles. As mentioned above, those small goggles don’t adequately cover most people’s eye sockets. The tanning bed’s UV rays still penetrate the eyes and can cause a sunburn. 

Photokeratitis is the official term for sunburned eyes. The symptoms include:

  • Red, irritated eyes
  • A gritty or sandy feeling
  • Excessive tearing
  • Eye pain or discomfort
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurred vision or halos around lights

In most cases, sunburned eyes resolve on their own within a day or a week (depending on the severity of the damage). However, chronic damage due to the eyes’ UV exposure leads to more serious vision complications over time.

Long-Term Eye Damage Caused By Tanning Salons

Over time, incremental UV damage to the eyes from sun tanning beds can lead to the earlier or more severe development of:

Dry eye

The condition we call “dry eye” is named for its primary symptom: eyes that no longer provide adequate lubrication or tears. Causes for dry eye range from excessive sun exposure or not taking sufficient screen breaks to medication side effects. 

Patients suffering from chronic, sun-related dry eye may require more treatment than the typical over-the-counter eye drops provide.

Development of pinguecula or pterygium

We mentioned these sun-related anatomical changes above. Most patients with pinguecula or pterygium (also called “surfer’s eye) spend a significant amount of time outdoors, for work or play, elevating their risk for sun damage.

These anatomical changes may feel annoying, like there’s something in your eye, but can eventually compromise vision if left untreated and without honoring the eyes’ need for sun protection.


We think of cataracts as an age-related vision issue, and – for the most part – that is true. However, UV rays age cells faster, so we notice cataracts developing at earlier ages in patients that didn’t use eye protection when spending time in the sun – OR patients who’ve used tanning beds over the years.

Cataracts can eventually cause legal blindness if they aren’t taken care of or if the UV damage is beyond what cataract surgery corrects.

Macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of vision loss for people 50 and over in the United States. So, it’s no surprise that people who use tanning beds have an increased risk of developing AMD – and potentially earlier than their non-tanning counterparts. The accelerated rate of cellular damage caused by the sun leads to accelerated aging, including earlier and more severe cases of AMD.

Be Honest About Tanning Bed Usage At Your Next Eye Exam

Do you use tanning beds more than once or twice a year? Be honest about that at your next eye exam at Atlantic Eye Insitute. The more we know about your lifestyle choices and routines, the better we can provide you with proactive eye protection and accurate information.

There is no doubt that tanning beds and eye health are connected. Limit your usage of tanning beds as much as you are willing to, and always prioritize adequate eye protection, even if it means getting a tan line – to protect your lifetime of eye and vision health. Contact us to schedule your next appointment.

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