Q I am a keen sunbed user, but have just read an article about the risk of skin cancer. Is this a real concern? - Natasha.
Thanks for the question Natasha - and the short answer is, yes, it is a very real concern. I had melanoma in my 20s and feel lucky to be here today, so this is an issue close to my heart.
Sunbeds and tanning booths use artificial UV light to tan the skin. The UV light they use can be up to five times as strong as natural UV light. We know UV light is a huge risk factor for skin damage and cancer but, as yet, New Zealand has no compulsory regulations around the use of sunbeds - although their use is widespread, especially among younger women.
So what are the risks?
Most importantly, melanoma is a potentially fatal skin cancer. Sadly New Zealand has the highest rates of malignant melanoma (MM) in the world. In 2008, there were 317 deaths and 2256 cases - equivalent to six New Zealanders a day being diagnosed.
It is the most serious type of skin cancer, and can rapidly spread and become life-threatening. MM is caused by exposure to UV light, either via natural sunlight or sunbed use.
The earlier you use sunbeds, the greater the risk - use before the age of 35 is associated with a staggering 75 per cent increase in the risk of developing MM. People with pale skin are at higher risk of MM, but cases are reported in Maori and Pacific Island people too.
Secondly, other cancers - known as non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC) - include squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal has revealed that sunbed use, especially at a younger age, increases the risk of developing these cancers later in life by as much as two-thirds.
Although not as life-threatening as melanoma, these types of cancer often spread superficially on the skin, and can lead to extensive disfigurement. New Zealand's estimated expenditure in 2006 for treating NMSC was a staggering $58 million, so they place a substantial burden on our health services. These types of cancers are likely to become even more prevalent as the population ages.
Lastly, the other less-publicised risks include skin burns, rashes, premature ageing, corneal burns in the eyes, and cataracts.
It is well recognised that properly fitting goggles should be provided during sunbed use to minimise the damage to eyes, but this is often not the case. Consumer NZ did an investigation into the sunbed industry and found only one out of 13 retailers visited were complying with voluntary recommendations, which include providing adequate eye protection, carrying out a skin assessment before starting any treatments, and getting signed consent forms from all clients.
Given all these very real risks, the World Health Organisation recommends that:
- No-one should use a sunbed without medical supervision (and, even then, the preference is for no sunbed use at all).
- Those under 18 should be banned from using sunbeds.
- And industry-wide compulsory regulations and restrictions be put in place, so customers are made aware of the risks, and have access to proper protective equipment.
My advice is, embrace your skin colour, whatever shade it is. But if you feel a desperate urge to have a tan, turn to the bottle not the solarium.
For more information visit the Melanoma Foundation's website.
- Cathy Stephenson is a general practitioner, medical forensic examiner and mother of three. If you have a question for her, email firstname.lastname@example.org
- © Fairfax NZ News
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