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Sunbeds 'as bad as midday sun'

Monday 22 June 2009

Over 100 deaths a year and 370 new cases of malignant skin cancer could be caused by sunbeds in the UK, newspapers have said. The news story follows a major report on the health effects of artificial tanning devices, which was delivered by independent advisers to the government.

The experts were reported as wanting a ban on sunbeds for under-18s, mandatory health warnings similar to those on cigarettes and a ban on unsupervised machines.

The report warned that some sunbeds can produce UV (ultraviolet) radiation doses greater than those from the midday Mediterranean sun. It said that the perceived benefits, mostly psychological and cosmetic, far outweigh the risks. It cites evidence that people who have excessive exposure to UV radiation before the age of 20 are at greater risk of melanoma later in life.

The committee makes several recommendations, including:

  • Regulating sunbeds, including banning the use, sale or hire of sunbeds to anyone under 18 and banning unsupervised or coin-fed sunbeds.
  • Licensing and inspecting tanning parlours.
  • Effective publicity campaigns aimed at young people on the risks of UV exposure.
  • Further research into the harms associated with sunbed use.

Why are sunbeds in the news?

A report on the health effects and risks of UV radiation from artificial tanning devices has been released by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE). This is an independent advisory committee which offers advice to government departments on the health effects of manmade and natural irradiation.

COMARE reviewed evidence from a variety of sources about this issue and has made recommendations on the basis of its findings. It said that it is a fact that exposure to UV radiation can cause skin cancer and that current sunbed technology can produce doses of UV greater than those from the Mediterranean sun at midday.

It said that a recent study by the South West Public Health Observatory estimated there to be about 5,300 sunbed outlets across the UK. The Sunbed Association estimates that there are 8,000 outlets.

What are the health risks of sunbeds?

The report discusses the evidence that shows UV radiation causes DNA damage and how exposure to UV radiation has been linked with skin cancer. It discusses the risk factors for skin cancer, including skin type, and how the number of cancers has increased over time. It states that in 2006, 10,400 new cases of melanoma were reported in the UK and that this number has increased since then.

It reports that a recent systematic review found that using sunbeds before the age of 35 increased the risk of malignant melanoma by 75% (absolute figures were not given). It also said that many studies have shown that early (childhood) exposure to sun is an important risk factor for melanoma in later life.

The committee said that it is difficult to estimate how many deaths are directly attributable to the use of sunbeds because of people’s exposure to natural sunlight. However, COMARE refers to a mathematical model that suggests that sunbeds may cause about 370 new cases of melanoma and 100 deaths in the UK each year. Studies have shown that there are other risks too, including photoageing (skin ageing through exposure to UV radiation), increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma (another type of skin cancer), risk of eye damage and short-term adverse effects, such as burns.

The committee points out that the benefits of sunbeds are largely psychological and cosmetic. It is well established that exposure to solar UV radiation, particularly before the age of 20, increases the risk of melanoma in later life. COMARE raises the possibility that more long-term damage could be done to the skin by using sunbeds in childhood and adolescence than by using them after the age of 20.

Who is at risk?

Overexposure to UV radiation, whether from the direct sun or from artificial tanning devices such as sunbeds, is a known risk factor for skin cancer and has other potential adverse effects. COMARE highlights other factors that are known to increase the risk of skin cancer, including some skin types, history of sunburn, being under 18, family history of skin cancer, an increased number of moles and already having extensive skin damage caused by UV radiation.

What action has the report called for?

COMARE makes several recommendations on the basis of their report. These include:

  • Regulation on the use of sunbeds, including prohibiting the use, sale or hire of sunbeds to under-18s and banning unsupervised or coin-fed sunbeds.
  • The compulsory licensing and registration of tanning parlours and their inspection to ensure compliance with whatever regulations are established.
  • Effective publicity campaigns aimed at young people on the risks of UV exposure.
  • Further research into the harms associated with sunbed use, including detailed investigations into skin and eye damage.

What are the alternatives to sunbeds?

People who really want a tan should consider fake tan (using creams, sprays or lotions) rather than sunbathing or using sunbeds. Cancer Research UK reports that, although more research needs to be done into the long-term effects of fake tan products, evidence to date indicates they are safer than sunbeds or tanning in the sun.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website

Links to the headlines

Sunbed ban on under-18s demanded to halt rising death toll.

The Times, 22 June 2009

Call to ban under 18s from sunbeds which kill 100 Britons a year.

Daily Mail, 22 June 2009

Sunbeds 'should carry cigarette-style health warnings'.

Daily Telegraph, 22 June 2009

Links to the science

The health effects and risks arising from exposure to ultraviolet radiation from artificial tanning devices.

Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE).