Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Tanning Risk Starts Young


Sunbeds caused about three-quarters of melanomas in sunbed users under the age of 30.

By Stephen Luntz

The suspected risk of early melanoma posed by sunbeds has been confirmed.

A study has found that sunbed usage raises the risk of melanoma among 18–39-year-olds by 41%, and doubles the risk for those who start before they are 20.

“Research into the effects of sunbeds was considered sufficient last year for the International Agency for Research on Cancer to conclude that the risk of developing melanoma was increased by sunbed use,” says University of Sydney epidemiologist Prof Bruce Armstrong. Logically it might be expected that early use would create an increased risk, but this is the first time a study has confirmed this.

“Our findings indicate that sunbeds caused about three-quarters of melanomas in sunbed users under the age of 30,” says Prof Graham Mann of the Melanoma Institute of Australia.

Sunbed users were also more likely to spend more time in the sun on holidays, but Armstrong says this was factored into the team’s calculations.

Armstrong says that it remains unclear whether sunbed use is more or less dangerous than soaking up an equivalent amount of energy naturally. “Sunbeds originally used UVB light, but when concerns about that arose they shifted to UVA. However, the tan one gets this way fades after a day, so they’ve started adding in some UVB,” he says. “Nevertheless there is more UVA proportionally than in sunlight.”

One effect of this is that sunbed tanners get less vitamin D than they would acquire under sunlight, as only UVB causes the body to produce the vitamin. Moreover, as UVA does not cause sunburn, tanners can stay longer under sunbeds without getting symptoms indicating that they have pushed their skin too far.

All this might not matter if UVA was actually safe. However, Armstrong says that recent research has shown that “while not as potent a carcinogen as UVB, UVA does cause the same mutations as UVB”.

It seems there is no way out of this conundrum for those who want a tan. “Fundamentally if you are getting a tan you are causing cancer,” says Armstrong. “One of the stimuli for tans is DNA damage. There is no such thing as a safe tan, except maybe one you spray on.”