How Safe is Your Suntan?

Books and magazines often advise us how to ‘tan safely’ and describe people as looking ‘healthy and tanned’, inextricably linking these two words in our minds. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As the NHS baldly states, “There’s no safe or healthy way to get a tan.”

If you’re not convinced, let’s look at why your skin tans.

The Problem with Suntans

However light it is, however slowly you built it up, and whether you got it lying in your back garden, a Mediterranean beach or a sunbed, a tan proves that your skin has been exposed to too much radiation.

When your skin is exposed to sunlight, around 5% of the UV (ultraviolet) radiation it receives is UVB, responsible for sunburn. The other 95% is UVA, responsible for tanning, aging, wrinkling and coarsening the skin. UVA rays penetrate to the lower layers of the epidermis, stimulating cells called melanocytes to produce melanin, the brown pigment that gives your skin its tanned appearance. This is the skin’s defence mechanism.

Your skin has good reason to go into defence mode. Prolonged exposure to UV rays increases your risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, and non-melanoma skin cancer too.

The Problem with Sunbeds

The World Health Organization classifies sunbeds as a ‘Group 1 Carcinogen’ – something scientifically proven to cause cancer in humans. Sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths emit the same harmful UV radiation as the sun, so they increase your risk of developing both malignant melanoma and no-melanoma skin cancers too.

But tanning devices are potentially more dangerous than sun exposure. Many sunbeds give out greater doses of UV rays than the midday tropical sun, and you’re relying on manufacturers and operators to ensure you get a ‘safe’ dose of UV.

In 2006, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products stated the maximum ultraviolet radiation from sunbeds shouldn’t exceed 0.3W/m2, or 11 standard erythema doses per hour (erythema means reddening of the skin caused by sunburn). That’s equivalent to exposure to the tropical sun, which the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as extreme.

So, it’s not surprising that sunbeds can cause more damage than exposure to sunlight. Your risk depends on your skin type, including the presence of moles, and the frequency and length of your sunbed sessions. Age is a factor too and, in the UK, it’s illegal for people under the age of 18 to use sunbeds.

“Sunbed use and overexposure to the sun can be a risk to the skin at any age,” say The British Association of Dermatologists. “However, a review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that first exposure to sunbeds before the age of 35 years increases the risk of melanoma by 75 per cent.”

Unfortunately, the symptoms of skin damage can take up to 20 years to appear, so it can be easy to fool yourself that you’ve done no harm. But research shows that people who are frequently exposed to UV rays before the age of 25 or who experience sunburn in childhood have a greatly increased risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Guidelines for using Tanning Equipment

A sunbed operator should discuss your skin type with you before you use a sunbed and advise you on the limit of your session length.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends 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, or badly sun-damaged skin
  • 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 aggravated by sunlight, such as vitiligo
  • have a personal or family history of skin cancer

You should also be especially cautious if you’re pregnant. Pregnancy can make your skin more sensitive and prone to burning and pigmentation (patches of dark skin).

Some studies have suggested there may be a link between increased UV rays and folic acid deficiency, as UV rays can break down folic acid. Folic acid is vital for the development of the baby’s neural system (brain and spinal cord).

Stay Safe in the Sun

Avoid the sun when it’s strongest (between 11am and 3pm, March to October, in the UK).

Never allow yourself to burn. Cover your skin and don’t forget a hat and sunglasses. If you’re not wearing sunglasses or wearing sunglasses without adequate UVA and UVB protection, then your eyes can suffer damage too, resulting in conjunctivitis, irritation or even cataracts.

Remember that sunscreen only reduces UV exposure; it doesn’t eliminate it. Use sunscreen that’s in date, with at least four-star UVA protection and an SPF of at least 15 (30 or higher if you’re fair-skinned or using it on children).

Useful information:

Sunbed regulation Act 2010:

HSE guidance on the use of UV tanning equipment:

British Association of Dermatologists’ advice on sunbeds:

NHS sunscreen and sun safety advice:

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