Consumer Health — 26 July 2012

Young people who use indoor tanning beds almost double their risk of getting melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, according to major new European study.

Researchers at the International Prevention Research Institute  in Lyon, France estimate there are 3,438 new cases of melanoma and 794 related deaths in Europe annually because of sunbed use. Indoor tanning has been widely practiced in northern Europe and the United States since the 1980’s, and has gained popularity in sunnier countries, such as Australia, since 2000.

“Indoor tanning has a plethora of negative health effects, many of which are involved in cancerous processes,” says the study, published online in the BMJ. “The burden of cancer attributable to sunbed use could further increase in the next 20 years because the recent, high usage levels observed in many countries have not yet achieved their full carcinogenic effect and because usage levels of teenagers and young adults remain high in many countries.”

Director of Research Mathieu Boniol and his colleagues reviewed 27 studies and over 11-thousand cases of melanoma in western and northern Europe. They found that sunbed users had a 20 percent higher risk of melanoma compared to those who had never used one. When indoor tanning began before the age of 35, the risk of cancer nearly doubled (87%)

The researchers cited Iceland’s experience as evidence that use of sunbeds as a cause of melanoma is not just a “proxy for sun exposure.”  In that country, where there are few sunny days, an epidemic of melanoma which began in 1990 began to decline 10 years later, when regulatory authorities cracked down on tanning facilities.

There are three different types of skin cancer: melanoma, squamous cell and basal cell cancer.  Of the three, melanoma is the most serious and if not caught early can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and to other parts of the body.

Ultraviolet light is a known risk factor for skin cancer. Sunbeds give out the same type of harmful radiation as sunlight – and researchers say the rays from some tanning units are 10-15 times stronger than the midday sun on the Mediterranean Sea. They criticized the sunbed industry for deceitful practices.

“Generally the sunbed industry has not self regulated effectively and has tended to disseminate non-evidence based information which can deceive consumers,” they said. “A tanning salon operator simply following regulations is an illusory prevention method, as such regulations are unable to turn a carcinogenic agent into a healthy one.  Instead the sunbed industry has used the opportunity to claim that properly regulated indoor tanning is safe, and that it might even have health benefits.”

Researchers warned that “if sunbed use by teenagers and young adults does not substantially decrease in the short term,” then health authorities should take more radical actions. They noted  that in 2009 the Brazilian National Health Surveillance Agency  banned the nationwide public use of tanning devices altogether.

The World Health Organization, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, and the European Society of Skin Cancer Prevention  recommend that sunbed use be limited to people over age 18. Such restrictions have been implemented inAustralia and in several European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain).

California is the only U.S. state that has banned indoor tanning for adolescents younger than 18.


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Mary Krasn

(1) Reader Comment

  1. With UV rays being such a big risk factor for the development of skin cancer, it is frightening that so many people still use the tanning beds. As the prevalence of tanning related cancer increases, they will undoubtedly be made illegal but for the time being education and public service announcements are probably the best way to deter people from using them.