Tanning cancer risk Q&A

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday April 8 2009

The safest way to tan is by using a fake tan lotion or spray

The Daily Mail has reported that UK women are facing a “tanorexia timebomb”, with the use of sunbeds responsible for increases in skin cancer among young women. The newspaper adds that for the first time malignant melanoma - “the deadliest form of skin cancer” - has become the most common form of cancer among women in their twenties and that experts are blaming the rise on “a 'binge-tanning' epidemic”. Many other newspapers have also reported on this story.


What is the basis for these current reports?

These reports have been prompted by statistics on skin cancer reported in a press release from Cancer Research UK (CRUK). This comes as part of the launch of the charity’s 2009 SunSmart campaign, which highlights the dangers that tanning under the sun or using sunbeds can pose. These latest figures have found that malignant melanoma has now become the most common cancer among women in their twenties, with about 340 women diagnosed with the disease in the UK in 2005.

They also report that melanoma has become the third most common cancer among women in their thirties, after breast and cervical cancer. Each year about 9,000 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed, and 1,800 people die from the condition, including about 50 women aged under 40 years.

CRUK statisticians estimate that by 2024, diagnoses of malignant melanoma are likely to increase to over 15,500 each year and become the fourth most common cancer overall. The press release suggests that experts believe “binge tanning” on sunbeds and foreign holidays are key reasons for this increase.


How does sunlight damage the skin?

Skin tans in response to the ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight and sunbeds. However, these UV rays from can damage the genetic material (DNA) in skin cells, increasing the risk of skin cancer. Exposure to UV rays also accelerates skin ageing.

Tanning from both sunlight and sunlight can be dangerous. Some high-powered sunbeds are reported to produce UV rays 10 times more intense than midday sunlight.


How dangerous is skin cancer/ malignant melanoma?

There are two main types of skin cancer – malignant melanoma and non-malignant skin cancer. The more common form, non-malignant skin cancer can be more easily treated. However, the malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer: in the UK, most of the 2,300 people who die from skin cancer each year die from this form of the disease.


What are the warning signs for skin cancer?

The early warning signs of skin cancer can include changes in the size, shape, or colour of moles or patches of your skin over a period of weeks or months. The warning signs for malignant melanoma skin cancer can be summarised in an ABCD system:

  • Asymmetry: if the two halves of a mole look different to each other.
  • Border: if the edge of a mole is jagged, irregular or blurred.
  • Colour: if a mole has areas of different shades or the colour is uneven.
  • Diameter: if the size of a mole increases.

Other warning signs of skin cancer include:

  • A mole, spot, or sore that itches or hurts.
  • A mole or growth that crusts, scabs, or bleeds.
  • A new skin growth or sore that doesn’t heal.

If you notice any of these warning signs you should go to your doctor to have your skin examined.


Are there safe alternatives to tanning?  

If people feel that they must have a tan, the safest way to do this is by applying a fake tan lotion or spray. CRUK reports that although more research needs to be done into the long-term effects of fake tan products, our current knowledge suggests that they are safer than sunbeds or tanning in the sun.

Fake tanning lotions can sometimes cause an allergic reaction. For this reason, you should test the product on a small area of skin before using, and avoid using fake tan during pregnancy, as changes in hormone levels can make the skin more sensitive than normal. These fake tanning products will not protect you from the sun, and you should take the usual precautions to avoid excessive sun exposure.

Although tanning injections have been available over the internet, they have not been tested for safety and are not legally available in the UK and therefore should not be used.


How can I stay safe in the sun? 

CRUK’s SunSmart website offers helpful tips on how to stay safe in the sun both at home and when on holiday. These tips include reducing your sun exposure and avoiding sunburn by:

  • Staying in the shade.
  • Applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or above.
  • Covering skin with close-weave clothing and wearing a hat and sunglasses.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

'I was hooked on sunbeds twice a day. Then my skin fell off and I needed chemotherapy'. Daily Mail, April 08 2009

The tanorexia timebomb: sunbeds blamed as skin cancer soars in young women. Daily Mail, April 08 2009

Warning over sunbeds and holidays in the sun as skin cancers rise. The Daily Telegraph, April 08 2009

Skin cancer killing the sunbed generation. Daily Mirror, April 08 2009

Cancer research says that sunbeds caused surge in skin cancer. The Times, April 08 2009

Further reading

Deadly skin cancer now threatens women in their twenties. Cancer Research UK Press Release, April 08 2009

National Library for Health: malignant melanoma


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