Are Tanning Beds Really a Psoriasis Treatment? Here’s What Dermatologists Have to Say

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If you have psoriasis, you probably already know that tanning beds have frequently been cited as a possible treatment for flare-ups — and psoriasis is notoriously hard to treat and can be extremely itchy and painful. But it's also true that we know how harmful tanning beds actually are — so harmful, in fact, that the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes them in the same cancer-causing group as cigarettes and plutonium. Still, one Allure editor with psoriasis shares that some dermatologists have told her to go to tanning beds to manage flare-ups.

So what is the real, honest truth about indoor tanning and psoriasis? What do doctors say about soaking up the sun (real or manufactured) in an effort to calm down a psoriasis flare-up, and are there better methods of soothing inflamed patches and itchy spots?

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First up, the National Psoriasis Foundation says it “does not support the use of indoor tanning beds as a substitute for phototherapy performed with a prescription and under a health care provider’s supervision.” In plain terms, they're talking about using UV light to help soothe psoriasis, when the UV light treatment is prescribed by a dermatologist and done under supervision at their office.

“Ultraviolet light is a treatment for psoriasis,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut. “It can reduce inflammation and put it in remission. In most cases, this is regulated by UV light machines and treatments administered in dermatologist offices.” And a tanning bed is not a great stand-in: Psoriasis is treated with UVB light, and tanning beds give off mostly UVA light. Dr. Gohara also cautions that “tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer regardless of the context.”

UV treatments in a dermatologist's office are also much more controlled than a session in a tanning bed. They usually last just a few seconds and “harness a single wavelength of UVB light to treat psoriasis, as opposed to the hundreds of wavelengths of UVA and UVB light that we may be exposed to in the sun or within a tanning bed, which are used for considerably longer spans of time,” explains Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Oregon. And doctors only focus on areas of skin with active psoriasis.

“I can't tell you how many patients I have who have used tanning beds as a treatment for psoriasis and ultimately wind up with melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers,” says Dr. Geraghty. “I used to see such patients regularly to help care for their psoriasis rash and I would encourage them to stop tanning. Now I see them every three months not for their psoriasis, but to freeze off pre-cancers, biopsy suspicious lesions, and surgically remove their melanomas and other skin cancers.” She adds that this can be upsetting for patients, who had the best intentions to treat a flare-up: “[They] were only trying to help improve their psoriasis, but instead wound up with an even more significant problem: permanent skin damage from repeated UV exposure and multiple scars, not to mention prematurely aged skin.”

Is there any instance in which a doctor would recommend a tanning bed as a psoriasis treatment? “Tanning beds may be invoked — emphasis on the word may — in very rare cases when someone could not regularly come to the derm office to get this treatment. It would follow a very deliberate decision and evaluation of the person's skin history, such as risk of skin cancer," explains Dr. Gohara. “Tanning bed use can increase this risk tremendously and should not be used casually in any circumstances.”

Dr. Geraghty calls tanning beds “a fast-track to skin cancer” and reiterates what we've long known: They're harmful to the skin in a plethora of ways, including premature aging and an increased risk of skin cancer.

That increased skin cancer risk is staggering. “Using tanning beds before age 20 can increase your chances of developing melanoma by 47%, and the risk increases with each use,” according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). The UV light that is emitted from tanning beds “contains an extremely harmful portion of UV light that is related to skin burning, skin premature aging, but most importantly, a real increased risk of non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers,” says board-certified dermatologist Melanie Palm.

If you're struggling with psoriasis, there is potential relief outside the tanning salon. “The wide variety of new topical treatments, biologic therapies [to help quiet overactive immune systems], and other treatment modalities, including lifestyle modification, are a much safer and effective means of controlling psoriasis,” says Dr. Palm.

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Originally Appeared on Allure