However infrequently you use sunbeds, every session increases your risk of skin cancer by more than you might think.
There is a common misconception that a session or two on the sunbed can help prepare your skin for sun exposure before a holiday. Some people mistakenly believe that building a tan using sunbeds can protect them from burning and the other harmful effects of tanning in the sun.
In fact, sunbeds are generally acknowledged to be more dangerous than natural sunlight.1
Our Consultant Dermatologist and Dermatological Surgeon Dr Andrew G Affleck from BMI Albyn Hospital answers your questions about sunbeds and explains just what makes them so harmful to our skin.
Are sunbeds safe to use?
Using sunbeds is not safe. Sunbed tanning is not safer than tanning in the sun.
The main cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. Like natural sunlight, most commercial sunbeds give off UVA and UVB rays, and both types can cause DNA damage in skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer.
In fact, the average skin cancer risk from sunbeds is thought to be double that of spending the same length of time outdoors in the summer sun.2
The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun.3
Will a tan protect me from sun damage?
Tanned skin is damaged skin.
A tan is the body’s attempt to try and protect itself from further damage. However, a tan only gives protection of approximately SPF 3, which is an inadequate level of sun protection.1
- What is SPF and what level do I need?
SPF stands for sun protection factor, which is a measure of protection from UVB rays.
The SPF of sunscreens is rated on a scale of 2-50+ with 50+ offering the highest protection.
Sunscreens are also given a star rating from 1-5, which indicates the level of UVA protection, with 5 being the highest level.
When buying sunscreen, opt for a minimum SPF of 15 and a rating of at least four stars.
Even when wearing sunscreen, don’t spend any longer in the sun than you would without it.4
Initially the body can repair sun-damaged cells, but with repeated exposure persistent changes can arise.
At first these changes are invisible, but over time they manifest in a range of visible ways. These include:
- Solar elastosis (loss of skin elasticity making skin appear leathery and wrinkled)
- Solar lentigines (pigmentation)
- Pre-cancerous actinic keratoses (pink scaly papules)
- Invasive skin cancers – both keratinocytic (basal and squamous cell carcinoma) and melanoma types.
Sunbed use increases the risk of all these types of sun damage developing.5
86% of skin cancer cases in the UK are preventable. 86% is also the proportion of skin cancer cases caused by overexposure to UV rays.6
Is it just older people who get skin cancer?
Actually, younger people are especially at risk.
People who first use a sunbed before the age of 35 are 75% more likely to develop melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Some studies have suggested the percentage is even higher.5
Melanoma is one of the most common forms of cancer and cancer deaths in young adults.
There is also a strong dose-response relationship between sunbeds and skin cancer. This means that the more sessions, hours and years spent tanning, the higher the risk of developing melanoma and other types of skin cancer.
Skin damage may take years to become visible but that doesn’t mean it is not there. For example, sunburn in childhood can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.1
Why do people still use sunbeds?
UV light has been shown to increase the release of endorphins in the body that can relieve pain and generate feelings of wellbeing. This could potentially lead to dependency, and may explain the reason why some people who have been diagnosed with melanoma continue to use sunbeds.7
There are other reasons why people use sunbeds, including aesthetic motives, the pursuit of a pre-holiday tan, the influence of peers or parents engaging in the same habit, and the treatment of health conditions.
Remember, there is no such thing as a safe tan. Even occasional use of sunbeds significantly increases your chance of developing melanoma.1
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