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5th June 2022

Here comes the sunbed ban?

Awareness of the effect of indoor suntanning on rates of skin cancer has been growing in recent years. UoM researchers claim it may be time for a nationwide ban.
Here comes the sunbed ban?
Photo: Rob Igo @ Flickr

Banning sunbeds in the UK would “substantially reduce” deaths from melanoma, according to a team of researchers from the University of Manchester. It could also save the NHS over £700,000.

The study tracked the projected impact of the ban on the 618,000 18 year olds living in England in 2019. The results suggested that a ban on indoor tanning would lead to 1206 fewer cases of melanoma and 207 fewer deaths from melanoma over their lifetimes.

The research also concluded it would result in 3987 fewer cases of other, more common forms of skin cancer. Aside from the obvious significant impact on patients, treatment of these cancers also places a large burden on the NHS.

Paul Lorigan, a Professor of Oncology at The University of Manchester and Honorary Consultant Medical Oncologist at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust said: “It is quite clear that melanoma and keratinocyte skin cancers have a significant impact on population health and healthcare budgets, and that a proportion are attributable to indoor tanning. Anyone who has used a sunbed increases their risk of melanoma by almost 60% .”

The study also investigated the impact of a public information campaign that could accompany a ban. It predicted a 99% likelihood that the ban with the information campaign would be cost-effective.

Despite the International Agency for Research in Cancer stating in 2009 that ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning devices can cause cancer, it remains legal for those over the age of 18 to use them in the UK. Some evidence suggests their use is decreasing, however, it remains widespread.

In addition, there is thought to be around 62,000 children under 18 currently using indoor tanning devices in England.

Sunbed use is particularly high in the north-west, and in cities with greater social deprivation. This is thought to explain, at least in part, the unusually high rates of melanoma in young women in the region.

Susanna Daniels, CEO of the charity Melanoma Focus, stated: “For individuals, sunbed use dramatically increases the risk of developing melanoma which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. The rates of melanoma skin cancer are increasing in the UK yet 86% of cases are preventable. We strongly advise the avoidance of sunbeds.”

Salons Protest

The Sunbed Association, which represents professional sunbed salons across the UK and Ireland refutes the findings of the study. They claim that “it is over exposure to sunlight and burning that is an increased risk factor for melanoma, not tanning.”

They also state that British regulations reduce any risk of burning during a tanning session, and that “A 10 minute-session on a professional compliant sunbed is the equivalent of 10 minutes in the Mediterranean summer sun.”

It is worth noting that this claim is disputed by many leading scientists.

The Sunbed Association also seek to remind people of the harm that could be done to indoor sun tanning business owners if the ban was put in place, arguing many are mums with young children bringing “much-needed income to the household”.

There’s so much ignorance about what happens to your body when you literally fry yourself”

Despite the Association’s claims, this recent study provides solid evidence that sunbeds do lead to increased rates of skin cancer. The disease can have disastrous consequences on those who experience it, and can sometimes be fatal.

Dr Sarah Carlick had a cancerous freckle excised over 6 years before a lump in her collarbone area was diagnosed as stage three malignant melanoma. In 2018, the day after her graduation, she was told the fast growing cancer had returned, and was travelling up the right side of her neck.

“I was utterly heartbroken and absolutely terrified when I found out the cancer had returned after I had been so long in remission,“ she said.

Sarah underwent a further operation in January 2019 at The Christie Hospital followed by 12 months of gruelling targeted therapy. The treatment left her with extreme fatigue, which led to her sometimes being wheelchair bound and having to take time off work.

She completed treatment just before lockdown in 2020, but says it took her over two years to return to a semblance of normality.

Describing herself as “99% recovered”, she is now committed to raising awareness about the dangers of UV light, sunbathing and use of sunbeds, saying:

“I wasn’t aware of the seriousness of sun protection growing up and I regularly got sunburnt as a child, as well as being a user of sunbeds in the family home as a young adult.

“But now I find it hard to watch anyone going anywhere near a sunbed because I know just how dangerous it is.

“I appreciate tanning salons are small businesses and that people’s livelihoods depend on it. But there’s so much ignorance about what happens to your body when you literally fry yourself.”

How can you prevent skin cancer?

Skin cancer is preventable by avoiding too much exposure to the sun. Cancer Research UK suggests that people spending time outside:

  • Wear close weave cotton clothing, long sleeves, and trousers
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face and neck
  • Wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection
  • Use a high factor sunscreen – even on a cloudy day
  • Spend time in the shade when the sun is strongest. In the UK this is between 11 am and 3 pm

However, as the recent study suggests, the simplest measure you can put in place to reduce your risk of skin cancer is to avoid sunbeds.

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Editor: Science and Technology Section

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