This week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monograph Working Group classified UV-emitting tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans”. The agency is the cancer arm of the World Health Organization. Previously, the use of sunlamps had been classified only as “probably carcinogenic in humans”. This elevated position makes tanning beds as carcinogenic as asbestos, cigarettes or alcohol (Group 1).
After analyzing 20 epidemiological studies, the committee found that the risk of skin cancer is increased by 75% when use of tanning devices starts before age 30. An increased risk of eye cancer was also associated with the use of artificial tanning devices.
The scientists’ conclusions will be published in the August issue of The Lancet Oncology.
The international panel concluded that all types of ultraviolet radiation caused mutations in the skin of mice. Previously, it was thought that just UVA caused this effect. As a result, the agency reclassified all UV radiation (UVA, UVB, UVC) as carcinogenic to humans.
Short-wavelength UVB (280-315 nm) has been associated with skin cancer in animal experiments. Long-wavelength UVA (315-400 nm) which penetrates the skin more deeply also contributes to the development of skin cancer. Sunbeds emit predominantly UVA and some UVB. But, in recent years, sunbed lamps have been manufactured that produce higher levels of UVB to speed the tanning process.
These conclusions are important because the perception is that artificial tanning is a safe alternative from sitting outside in the sun. In addition, its use is very popular among young women. Previous studies have shown that younger people who use tanning beds are eight times more likely to get melanoma than those who don’t.
Exposure to UV light – whether from a natural or artificial source – is a risk factor for skin cancer. Over 2 million cases of skin cancer occur worldwide each year. Of these, 132,000 cases are diagnosed as malignant melanoma – the most fatal kind of skin cancer. Most skin cancers are attributable to over exposure to UV radiation and therefore preventable.
The chance of getting non-melanoma skin cancers such as squamous and basal cell carcinomas is increased with exposure to UV light. While not as deadly, their diagnosis can mean removal of cancerous cells, leading to disfigurement.
In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services classifies exposure to tanning devices as “known to be carcinogenic to humans”.
The Bottom Line
If you think tanning makes you look better, remember, this short-term feeling will not outlast the long-term negative health consequences.
Excessive exposure to sunlight – whether by natural or artificial means – ages the skin by breaking down collagen. This loose, sagging skin contributes to wrinkles and premature aging.
Many use a tanning bed prior to a tropical vacation to help prevent sunburn. However, the same protective effect can be obtained from using a sun protection factor. And, for those who tan more easily instead of burning, don’t be fooled – you can still damage your skin after UV exposure.
While tanning beds are off limits for those with fair skin, under 18 years of age, tend to freckle or have moles, have a history of childhood sunburns or taking certain medications, we do not recommend their use for vanity or health sake.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.