Thinking of tanning this winter?

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With our holidays all but a distant memory, some of us are probably looking for ways to reinvigorate that healthy summer glow through either natural or unnatural means. For those who can’t afford a Christmas escape to Thailand to top-up their tan, we’re left with the latter. But before you jump into a sunbed for a course of ‘treatment’, here’s a bit of helpful advice…

Tanning beds (and the sun) emit two types of ultraviolet (UV) light rays: UVA and UVB. The skin absorbs both types but in different ways. UVA has a longer wavelength and penetrates deep into the skin. It is responsible for the golden-brown tan sought for by most salon patrons. UVB has a shorter wavelength and only penetrates the surface of the skin. It is this type of wavelength that is responsible for catalysing the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin (World Health Organisation, 2012).

In excess, both rays contribute to health risks such as skin cancer, skin aging and eye damage. Until recently, it was believed that UVB rays were more accountable for skin damage, such as sun burn and its association with skin cancer. For this reason, tanning equipment used to be calibrated to emit more UVA and less UVB, which theoretically increased the tanning outcome whilst reducing the risk of burning. However, newer evidence is emerging that has thrown scientists and regulatory experts into heated discussion at the World Health Organisation (WHO), that UVA is also responsible for the melanoma (cancer) risks known to be affiliated with excess UV exposure.

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As a result, tanning beds are now calibrated to emit more UVB light rays – similar to that of the sun’s own emissions (around 95% UVA and 5% UVB) (WHO, 2012). Whilst this may seem like a triumph for the tanning bed inclined, it is important to remember the health risks associated with UV overexposure. For example, most people do not enter tanning beds wearing protective clothing or UV protective cream. Exposing too much surface area of the skin can quickly result in excessive absorption of ultraviolet light rays. This means that areas of your body, which for generations (unless you’re from a naturist background) have barely seen the light of day, are being exposed to high levels of UV radiation at close proximity. This is far more than most people’s skin can handle.

It is important to note that the WHO advises people with very light skin not to use sun beds at all because some skin types are unsuitable for tanning. Some people may only go red after repeated exposure to a sun bed. In 2010 The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act came into being, bringing in regulation which banned under 18s from using tanning equipment. The Act, which came into force on 8 April 2011, was a combined result of societal pressure, after the Scottish government’s regulation on sunbed usage in 2008, and expert advice from the WHO and other scientific and health organisations.

The evidence for the Act is a strong causal link between UV exposure and skin cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, melanomas are the most common cancer for people aged 15 to 34, for which around 12,800 people are diagnosed in the UK each year. In the United States they have classified the use of sunbeds as ‘known to be carcinogenic to humans’ and state that the more extensive the exposure to UV, the greater the risk, particularly to those aged below 30 years (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2004). The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection states that ‘the use of sunbeds for cosmetic purposes is not recommended’ and that ‘regular exposure should not exceed two sessions per week with a maximum of 30 sessions per year’. The Australian government goes further, believing that sunbeds should come with health warnings similar to those seen on cigarette packets (WHO, 2012).

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Elsewhere, doctors only prescribe the use of tanning beds to promote health in very rare cases, and advice should be sought from your physician if you plan on using UV radiation for ‘medicinal’ purposes. Another common misunderstanding is that a tan from a sun bed will help provide protection against the sun whilst on holiday. In reality a tan from a sun bed will only provide limited protection against sunburn from solar UV.

During the summer months, 10-15 minutes of sunshine a day, several times per week between 11am and 3pm, provides sufficient UVB absorption for most Caucasians to optimize their vitamin D levels. The darker your skin, the more time you need to spend in the sunshine (NHS, 2011).

So before you go for that UV tanning course, perhaps you’ll think twice. Fake tan from a bottle or spray can look just as effective and does not carry a health risk. Alternatively, be proud and fabulous in your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

For more information on sun beds a UV exposure visit who.int or nhs.uk.

About Stephen Bahooshy

After graduating in 2009 with a degree in BSc (hons) Public Health Nutrition, Stephen is a registered Associated Nutritionist with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists. Stephen enjoys fitness and attends the gym 4 to 5 times per week; his favourite class is Body Pump.

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