A woman lies in a tanning bed.It’s springtime in Michigan. Or, as some like to think of it, tanning season.

Unfortunately, for those looking to prolong a little color after a tropical spring break trip, or trade in their winter paleness for a ‘healthy’ glow, there’s no way to tan safely–indoors or outdoors.

Tan skin is damaged skin. And indoor tanning is not a safe alternative to sun exposure.

Besides causing skin damage and premature aging, exposure to ultraviolet light from tanning beds is linked to melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and cataracts and melanoma of the eye.

A report published in JAMA Dermatology cites indoor tanning as a major public health problem, accounting for nearly half a million new skin cancer diagnoses each year. The risk increases even more among frequent tanning bed users and those who start at a young age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who use a tanning salon before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent.

Heat + sweat + clothing optional = ??

Perhaps just as frightening as melanoma (if not more so, for some) is the risk of serious skin infections from indoor tanning salons.

That’s right. Tanning beds can provide an ideal environment for some nasty bugs to not only survive, but to thrive.

According to experts at Mayo Clinic, staphylococcus bacteria (staph), fecal bacteria, herpes virus, and wart-causing human papillomavirus are able to survive on a tanning bed.

“The risk of skin infection is very real,” said Russell John Lampen, DO, an infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “Staph, in particular, is everywhere these days. Salons, gyms. Tanning beds are just one more place to pick it up.”

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology documented that 100 percent of the tanning beds researchers tested grew bacterial cultures. Most were strains of staph and gut bacteria.

“Staph bacteria are likely left behind by sweaty armpits and groins,” Dr. Lampen said. “If you have a nick or cut, you could get an infection right away. But a bigger danger is colonization. Once you’re exposed to staph, it can stay, or colonize, on your skin and you have a much higher risk of developing a skin or soft tissue infection at a later time.”

And, while the possibility that your tanning bed may also be covered in gut, or fecal, bacteria is certainly gross, it’s “not terribly dangerous,” he said.

A staph infection looks like pimples or boils on the skin that can become inflamed and quite painful. Antibiotics are necessary to clear the infection.

Dr. Lampen was not able to find any substantiated cases of herpes trasmission from a tanning bed, so the risk may be low or negligible. But why chance it?

People assume ultraviolet light will kill these germs. And while it can, theoretically, it’s not enough in this particular environment.

People also assume that all the technicians in a salon thoroughly clean the tanning beds after each use, and that the person who used the tanning bed right before wore clothing.

Don’t assume.

Although general cleanliness is encouraged, most states have no monitoring or enforcement methods in place.

Don’t burn baby, burn

If leathery wrinkled skin, skin cancer and nasty skin infections aren’t enough to convince one to avoid a tanning bed, there’s also the risk of serious injury to consider.

More than 3,000 hospital emergency room visits each year are a direct result of indoor tanning. They include severe skin burns, eye injuries (burns, inflamed cornea, objects embedded in the eye), and fainting or loss of consciousness.

So if you really must have that ‘sun-kissed glow’ associated with a tan, use a sunless tanning product.

And remember, there’s no such thing as healthy sun exposure. When you’re out in the sun, always practice sun safety:

  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. In some situations, you should use a sunscreen with an SPF of 50.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally, apply it 15 minutes before you go outside and re-apply it every hour when outdoors.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses, and consider sitting under an umbrella. Consider a rash guard shirt around the water.
  • Try to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the levels of ultraviolet rays are highest.