Sunbeds a killer


Considering a few sunbed sessions to maintain that summer tan? Think again. Experts are warning that sunbed use can increase your risk of malignant melanoma by up to a staggering 75%.

The dangers of sunbeds have been debated for a while, but in recent months major cancer-fighting organisations have released more urgent warnings calling for a ban of the use of unstaffed tanning booths and an age limit of 18 years.

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa), South Africa has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world after Australia, and their resolute stand is that there is no such thing as a safe tan.

Sun bed rays 10 times stronger than midday sun
This is backed up by research from charity group Cancer Research UK, who claimed in a survey last year that eight out of ten sunbed users increased their risk of the life-threatening form of skin cancer by 75%. This was particularly true for subbed users under the age of 35.

Cancer Research UK claims that "the intensity of some UV rays from sunbeds can be 10 to 15 times higher than that of the midday sun".

The dangers of sunbeds have also been highlighted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which laments the popularity of these machines for what is essentially a cosmetic purpose.

They state unequivocally in a statement on sunbed use and tanning that "exposure to UV, either naturally from the sun or from artificial sources such as sun lamps, is a known risk for skin cancer".

Sunbeds can be deadly
According to WHO, sunbeds emit UVA and UVB, both of which they say can damage the DNA in cells of the skin. They add that more modern sunbeds now emit higher UVB "to mimic the solar spectrum and speed the tanning process".

So what is the danger? UVB has carcinogenic properties and excessive exposure has been shown to cause certain skin cancers.

WHO quotes an expert in the field of radiation protection who described tanning parlours as "industrial-scale radiation exposure experiments involving significant parts of the population".

And the link between sunbed use and the risk of skin cancer is well-document: The WHO says, "as with sun exposure, recent studies have shown a relationship between the use of sunbeds and malignant melanoma as well as non-melanoma skin cancers such as squamous and basal cell carcinomas.

"Thus the consequences of regular sunbed use may include disfigurement from removal of skin cancers and early death if the cancer is a malignant melanoma."

Cansa has similar statistics which show that people who use tanning devices have 2.5 times the risk of squamous cell cancer and 1.5 times the risk of basal cell cancer. They also have a greater risk of developing eye problems, such as cataracts.

Basal cell cancer is the most common form and squamous cell cancer the second most common form of skin cancer. Squamous cell cancer usually occurs in the late-middle and old age. Basal cell cancer usually occurs on the central area of the face, especially in fair-skinned people.

How sunbeds work
According to the WHO, sunbeds emit UVA radiation which activates the melanin pigment already embedded in the upper skin cells. The small amounts of UVB emitted by sunbeds induce a "delayed tanning reaction" where new melanin is produced and distributed by the upper skin cells.

Continued use of sunbeds is therefore associated with DNA damage in melanocytes, the cells which produce the dark-coloured melanin pigment in the skin. In darker skinned people, only a small amount of DNA damage is sufficient to bring about more of a tan, but in fair-skinned people there is much more DNA damage. Mainly fair-skinned people use sunbeds.

Debunking the myths
Considering all this, it's difficult to see what the attraction is of having a year-long tan if the end result could be deadly.

And while sunbed enthusiasts still maintain that there are many benefits, the experts discredit all so-called health benefits. Cancer Research UK clears up some of these:

  • Being tanned is healthy: The experts say the opposite is true and state that "the simple fact that your skin has changed colour is a sign of damage".
  • Sunbeds improve your tan: Apparently now, since each person has their own "tanning limit" - a point where your skin won't get any darker, no matter how much UV you expose yourself to. Instead, continued exposure will make your skin coarse, leathery and wrinkled - not exactly the healthy tanned look you were looking for.
  • Sunbeds are safer than lying in the sun: As Cansa states, there is no such thing as a safe tan. Research shows that some types of UV rays from sunbeds can actually be between 10 and 15 times higher than that of the midday sun.
  • Sunbeds can be safely used to tan gradually: No amount of sunscreen will protect you completely. Studies have actually shown that short periods of intense, irregular UV exposure, such as on a sunbed, is the fastest way to damage your skin.
  • You need to burn to get a tan: Burning or going red under a sunbed is a sure sign you've done damage to your skin as UV rays penetrate deep into the skin layers and damage the DNA in the skin cells. And once cells are changed by UV, they are at greater risk of mutating and dividing uncontrollably which is what happens in cancer.
  • Sunbeds help produce vitamin D: There has been much in the news lately about the benefits of vitamin D – but it's a myth that you need a tan to get your vitamin intake. The body naturally produces it when the skin is exposed to UV rays and it's also present in certain foods. Even short periods in the sun can produce adequate amounts.

Who is most at risk?
Fair-skinned people are most at risk and shouldn't be exposed to UV rays for any extended amount of time. Young people, especially those under 18 should also not use sunbeds as their skin is still delicate and more prone to damage.

You shouldn't use a sunbed if:

  • you have freckles
  • are under 18
  • burn easily
  • have many moles
  • have had skin cancer in the past
  • have a family history of skin cancer
  • are using medication which increases your sensitivity to UV

Sources: World Health Organisation (; Cancer Research UK (; Health24; the Cancer Association of South Africa (

(Amy Henderson, Health24, May 2009)

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