Summer is a time when many people find themselves spending time outdoors, enjoying our beautiful Southern California weather with loved ones. Most people understand the importance of protecting your skin from the sun, but far less understand the importance of protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays. During the summer months, many people flock to tanning salons to try and get a “base” layer tan before a beach vacation, never considering the potential for damaging our ocular structures.
Tanning salons use indoor tanning beds, or sun beds, to imitate the UV production of the sun to create melanin (a sun tan) in a faster way than the sun. The light technology produces a combination of UV light, and has long been known as a risk factor for developing skin cancer later in life, but can the tanning beds harm the eyes, as well? A recent study looked at trying to answer this very question.
What the authors of the study wanted to know was can the UV radiation from the tanning bed harm the eyes, and if so, to what degree. The study was conducted over a 15-day period of using tanning beds. The participants were volunteers that used the beds 10 times for 10 minute intervals.
The findings? The tanning beds altered the surface of the eye called the cornea, the clear part just in front of the iris and pupil, very important for vision. The interesting (and disturbing) part is the damage done was not able to be appreciated by a normal examination. The damage was only appreciated with a microscope, and some of the damage was permanent. This tells us tanning beds may be more harmful, long term, than once thought.
Tanning beds (and UV light in general) can damage the internal ocular structures in addition to the ocular surface. In 2009, a patient went to study abroad and used tanning beds while in Holland. The patient didn’t receive any protective eyewear while using the sun beds, and opened her eyes a few times while tanning. When she returned home, she visited her optometrist, and discovered she had permanently impaired her retina, similar to staring directly at the sun. This is a disease called solar maculopathy, and does irreversible damage to the internal structures of the eye. Her left eye now sees 20/300 or about 20 times worse than normal.
The moral of the story is tanning beds pose inherent risks. You should always consult your doctor before using one, and if you plan to do so in the future, understand your eyes are at risk of subclinical damage which may be permanent. UV damage has long been known to cause ocular diseases, whether they be acute or chronic, but we are now just discovering the damage artificial light may cause. Any time you are outside during daylight, it is a good idea to protect yourself from the sun, especially your eyes.