A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Tanning vs. smoking: Which is worse for you?

tanning or cigarettes illustration on grunge background

Cigarettes and tanning beds are both bad for you, but is one worse than the other?

Cigarettes are a leading cause of lung cancer. You know that. But you may not be aware of a clear link between tanning beds and skin cancer.

Just looking at the numbers, skin cancer is diagnosed more than twice as much as lung cancer in the United States. The Skin Cancer Foundation’s recent study concluded that more than 419,000 new skin cancer cases are attributable to indoor tanning each year. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 201,828 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012, the most recent year available.

Which is worse?

So, can you draw conclusions about which is worse, cigarettes or tanning beds? We put the question to Dr. Clayton Green, a Marshfield Clinic dermatologist who averages about 500 skin cancer patients per year.

“I think it’s hard to make that comparison,” he said. “Skin cancer is incredibly common but screening for it is much easier than for lung cancer. That may be why so many people are diagnosed with it, so we catch it at an early stage when it is more treatable.”

The American Academy of Dermatology, the professional society for dermatology, has long advocated against sun exposure and tanning beds.

Though a skin cancer specialist, Green pointed out cigarettes cause more damage to vital organs like the heart and lungs. However, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, melanoma, is on the rise and people continue to tan.

Society’s ‘flawed view’ on tanning

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, a recent study demonstrates that tanning bed use, particularly among young people, is an alarmingly widespread behavior. This reflects what the Foundation called “society’s flawed view that an artificially tanned look is beautiful.”

Green said if you visit tanning beds to prepare for a trip to the tropics, you’re ill-informed. “A tanning bed doesn’t give any protective affect because it uses UVA rays,” he said. “That’s different from UVB rays that do protect against further burning.”

He also recommended people check themselves regularly for abnormal moles or lesions. With his training and experience, he can sometimes spot those skin issues from across a room. If you’re in doubt about a spot or mole, contact your health care provider or a skin specialist.

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