The warm and seemingly healthy glow from a good tan is an irresistible appeal for many, particularly those under the age of 35. Most everyone recognizes the potential skin damage that occurs from excessive natural sun exposure and people are much more vigilant today about using sun blocks and limiting sun exposure. These concerns, as well as that of convenience, has led to the rise of tanning beds and tanning salons over the past two decades which are used by tens of millions around the world.
There remains vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate between the medical world and the tanning bed industry about the safety of acquiring a tan by this method. The medical world will argue that any artificial UV exposure is just as harmful as that by the sun. The tanning bed world will counter with that its effects are much safer than that of the sun.
Weighing in on this debate is now the International Agency for Research on Cancer. (IARC) They have now included sunbeds in its highest cancer-risk category. The French-based agency of the World Health Organization originally classified sunbeds as a probable cancer-causing agent in 1992 but have now raised that concern to its highest-risk category. Quoting IARC researcher Vincent Cogliano, ‘The use of sunbeds is carcinogenic to humans. It causes melanoma of the skin and melanoma of the eye. I cannot see any reason why a healthy person should use them.’
According to the new IARC assessment, which appeared in a recent article of Lancet Oncology, the risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent when use of tanning devices starts before the age of 30. It is reported that tanning beds emit a higher concentration of UV rays than natural sunlight, thus their potential carcinogenic effects on the skin are no less harmful.
What does all of this mean? I think it is fair to say that many of those who seek tans will continue to do so, regardless of the potential risks. Tanning for some is a lifestyle, for others it less frequent and often event or vacation motivated. Not everyone, based on skin type and amount of exposure, has the same skin cancer risk. However, medical evidence is clear that more UV exposure, regardless of the source, does increase the risk of skin cancer later. But when you are young and the negative effects are years to decades away, it is hard to have any appreciation of those risks.
Like most things in life, moderation and judgment is the key. As an Indianapolis plastic surgeon, I tell my patients that a little tanning occasionally is probably alright as long as it is not excessive and does not result in any sunburn injury. Even in a tanning bed, think of some low level SPF and sunscreen protection to guard against inadvertent excessive exposure. If you are fair-skinned and anyone in your family has a history of skin cancer, I would consider skipping it entirely.
Dr. Barry Eppley