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The Dangers Of Sunbeds

Justine Sheils has used sunbeds since she was 15 years old to get a tan before a holiday then top it up when back at home. At the age of 32 she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma (skin cancer) and had to have two operations to remove tumours. “I get so angry when I hear young celebrities say having a tan makes you look sexy. It’s only when you get older you understand the risks.”

Every year in the United Kingdom alone 40 000 new cases of skin cancer are reported with around 2000 proving fatal. Most cases are as a result of over exposure to the sun but the use of sunbeds may well contribute to this.

At fault is the drive to develop a healthy tan. The fashion for brown skin developed throughout the twentieth century. Earlier a paler skin was considered a mark of high social status and still is in countries such as India. Perhaps we are beginning to understand why.

Ironically a tan is not healthy at all. Too much ultra violet radiation (UVR) creates a tan, which is a symptom of skin damage. It is in fact the beginning of photoaging or premature aging of the skin. We have all seen the effects of this in people who have spent too long in the sun and develop leathery, wrinkled and sagging skin. The dermis is the layer of skin beneath the outer layer (the epidermis) and contains collagen and elastic fibres, which provide the support and elasticity to the skin. In photoaging the collagen fibrils become disorganized and abnormal amounts of elastin material accumulates. This is known as solar elastosis. A tan fades but the damage to the skin does not.

The most common types of skin cancer are actually non-threatening, including basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer, but the risk of the potentially fatal malignant melanoma cancer is always present. Cancer Research UK reports that the incidence of skin cancer has quadrupled since the 1970s.

The debate on sunbeds is part of the wider debate on over exposure to the sun or more specifically to the UVR. In response to the evidence, the Sunbed Association have pointed out that there are regulations available on the use of their products and there is no evidence to show the use of sunbeds alone is dangerous. In reality no one person uses a sunbed alone without lying in the sun as well. Nonetheless it is believed the extensive use of sunbeds has contributed to the levels of cancer. It is reported some sunbeds give out more UVR doses than the Mediterranean sun at noon.

Generally the risk of skin cancer increases with age but worryingly younger people are more at risk of malignant melanoma. In fact the condition is now the most common cancer in the 15-34 age range and is twice as common in women up to the age of 34 than in men of the same age. For this reason the British Medical Association is now calling for a ban on under eighteen year olds using sunbeds and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has called for all local authority leisure centres to ban their use on their premises.

So can we safely get a fashionable tan? Self-tanning lotions have improved markedly over the years and bronzers and tanning pills offer possible alternatives. As with many products the quality can vary so it is best to research the brands but natural tanning products are available and may be the better option.

The drive to have what is considered a ‘healthy’ tan encourages too many to take risks. Clearly it is wise to be sensible and find safe alternatives to using a sun bed or staying out in the sun.


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