Sunbeds – The Facts

Date: 25 May 2018

Last week the Sunbed Association launched a shocking campaign claiming to bust ‘myths’ about the dangers of using sunbeds.

During Sun Awareness Week – an event designed to raise awareness of the importance of staying safe in the sun – the organisation chose to post harmful information about sunbeds on its social media accounts.

Using a sunbed may be particularly tempting during the summer months when the pressure to have a tan is higher.

In this blog post, we have responded to each ‘myth’ individually to help you make an informed choice.

girl in sunbed

1 - Sunbeds cause skin cancer

The Sunbed Association claims there is no evidence that moderate use of a commercial sunbed will increase your risk of melanoma. This is not true – using a sunbed will increase your risk of getting skin cancer.

Sunbeds emit UV rays that cause DNA damage. This damage increases your risk of developing different kinds of skin cancer, including the most serious form called malignant melanoma.

There is so much evidence proving that UV rays cause cancer that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), has classified sunbeds as a Group 1 carcinogen.

A carcinogen is a substance capable of causing cancer. Carcinogens are categorised into different groups depending on the evidence available:

  • Group 1 – Causes cancer
  • Group 2A – Probably causes cancer
  • Group 2B – Possibly causes cancer
  • Group 3 – Not classifiable
  • Group 4 – Probably doesn’t cause cancer

Group 1 is the highest level of evidence that a substance causes cancer.

A 2017 report by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks reviewed the most recent evidence on sunbeds and came to the conclusion that ultraviolet radiation (UVR), including UVR emitted by sunbeds, is a ‘complete carcinogen’.

‘Complete carcinogen’ is a term given to a substance that can cause both initial damage to DNA and the rapid cell growth needed for a tumour to develop.

The committee found strong evidence that exposure to UVR causes melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma at all ages and that the risk of cancer is higher when the first exposure takes place at a younger age. So not only can sunbeds cause skin cancer no matter what age you are when you use them – the younger you start using them, the higher your risk of skin cancer.

The committee also found that exposure to UVR increases the risk of basal cell carcinoma and ocular melanoma.

The report includes the latest evidence showing that in Europe 3,438 (5.4%) of 63,942 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year are estimated to be attributable to sunbed use.

2 - Sunbeds emit UV levels 10-15 times higher than the Mediterranean sun

The Sunbed Association says that sunbeds are required under European law to have a UV output the same as the Mediterranean sun, and asks users to ensure that the sunbed they use is ‘0.3 compliant’.

The regulations are based on advice produced by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products in 2006. The committee decided that the maximum UVR from sunbeds shouldn’t exceed 0.3 watts (units of power) per square metre. This is equivalent to exposure to the tropical sun – which is still described as extreme by the World Health Organisation.

We believe there is no safe way to tan. There is also evidence to show that not all tanning salons are meeting the regulations.

A 2013 survey published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that nine out of 10 sunbeds exceeded the maximum UV radiation levels set out by European Union standards, and these beds posed a significantly higher cancer risk than the midday Mediterranean sun in the summer.

3 - There's no such thing as a safe tan

The Sunbed Association says tanning is the body’s natural reaction to gradual, moderate UV exposure, and that burning is an uncontrolled over-exposure to UV and must be avoided.

Guidelines produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state that there is no safe or healthy way to get a tan from sunlight.

The guidelines also state that getting a tan provides little protection against later exposure to sunlight and the resulting skin damage outweighs any later protective effect.

2008 study published in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research came to the conclusion that in order to achieve a tan, the skin must be exposed to UVR, and therefore ‘safe tanning’ is a physical impossibility.

4 - Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to sun-bathing

The Sunbed Association says that under professional supervision, sunbeds provide a specific dose of UV in a controlled environment, avoiding the risk of burning.

As we’ve outlined above, there is no safe level of UVR. Any exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer.

A tan is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of UV rays. Using a sunbed to get a tan isn’t safer than tanning in the sun.

It may even be more harmful, according to the NHS, depending on factors such as:

  • The strength of UV rays from the sunbed
  • How often you use a sunbed
  • The length of your sunbed sessions
  • Your skin type – for example, whether you have fair or dark skin
  • Your age

report published by WHO reinforces the point that UVR from sunbeds has the same physical characteristics as the UVR reaching the earth from the sun. It also states that as well as causing cancer, using sunbeds carries an increased risk of sunburn, accelerated skin ageing and eye inflammation.

5 - No one should use a sunbed

The Sunbed Association says that not everyone can use a sunbed or sunbathe, and that people should check their skin type and get screened before tanning.

We recommend that you shouldn’t use a sunbed, regardless of skin type, for all the reasons we’ve outlined above.

But if you are going to use one, there are guidelines set out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that you should read carefully.

The guidelines say you shouldn’t use UV tanning equipment if you:

  • have fair, sensitive skin that burns easily or tans slowly or poorly
  • have a history of sunburn, particularly in childhood
  • have lots of freckles and red hair
  • have lots of moles
  • are taking medicines or using creams that make your skin sensitive to sunlight
  • have a medical condition made worse by sunlight, such as vitiligo, a long-term skin condition caused by the lack of a chemical in the skin called melanin
  • have had skin cancer or someone in your family has had it
  • already have badly sun-damaged skin

Remember that it’s illegal to use sunbeds in the UK if you’re under the age of 18.

6 - There are no benefits to using a sunbed

The Sunbed Association says that UV light is the most natural source of vitamin D and that this is essential for good health.

The 2017 report by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks states that the beneficial effects of sunbed use, including generation of vitamin D, are outweighed by the dangers.

The report says there is no need to use sunbeds to induce vitamin D production because alternative sources of vitamin D are readily available.

Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. We need these nutrients to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.

If you’re worried about getting enough vitamin D, especially during autumn and winter, there are some foods you can eat that will boost your levels. According to the NHS, these include:

  • oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and fresh tuna
  • red meat, eaten in moderation
  • liver
  • egg yolks
  • fortified foods – such as most fat spreads and some breakfast cereals

You could also consider taking a daily supplement.

7 - Using a sunbed before a holiday won’t help prevent sunburn

The Sunbed Association claims that a few sessions on a sunbed before you jet off to a hot destination is a great way to help prepare your skin for the intensity of the summer sun.

As we’ve already said, there is no such thing as a safe tan. By using a sunbed, you are exposing your skin to harmful UV rays that cause DNA damage. Having a tan offers very little protection to later exposure to sunlight.

Here are some tips on how to stay safe in the sun, in the UK and when you’re on holiday:

  • Stay in the shade – Spend time in the shade when the sun is at its strongest, usually between 11am and 3pm
  • Cover up – Wear clothes that protect you from the sun, including a wide-brimmed hat and good quality sunglasses
  • Wear sunscreen – Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and a 4 or 5 star UVA rating. Remember to reapply throughout the day, especially after swimming, sweating or towel drying. You can find more information on sunscreen here.
  • Watch the clock – Take extra care in sunnier climates – you may burn quickly, even when it is cloudy or when it’s not hot.

Being aware of the signs of skin cancer

Skin cancer is something we should all take seriously. The Sunbed Association’s campaign is irresponsible and putting people’s health at risk.

We recommend you avoid sunbeds at all costs. However, we know it can be tricky to avoid over-exposure to the sun, even when you’re being careful. So whether you’ve used sunbeds in the past or not, it’s important to recognise the signs of skin cancer.

If you notice any changes to your skin, you should contact your doctor straight away. If cancer is diagnosed early, it can often be treated more successfully.

The most common sign of skin cancer is a change to a mole, freckle or normal patch of skin.

Other signs include:

  • A new growth or sore that does not heal
  • A spot, mole or sore that itches or hurts
  • A mole or growth that bleeds, crusts or scabs

You can check your moles by using the NHS’s ABCDE guide here.

mole inspection

And if you really want a ‘healthy glow’ for the summer, please remember – the best tan is a fake tan. From professional spray tans to off-the-shelf lotions and mousses, there are lots of products out there – so why not try a few and find the best one for you?

Remember that fake tan is not a replacement for sunscreen unless it has an SPF of at least 30 and a 4 or 5 star UVA rating – you should always follow the guide above to keep your skin protected.

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