freelance journalist, print journalist, online journalist, copywriter, content editor, freelance editor, health and lifestyle, blogger Sunbeds: the last word? | Christine Morgan - Journalist
+44 (0)7931 342850

Oh not another sunbeds-give-you-skin-cancer story, I hear you say? Fraid so. Right now, it seems that hardly a month goes by without some study or other claiming the health risks of using these tanning devils (in April, we were told that they were as addictive as booze and drugs, no less).

Of course no self-respecting riskfactorphobe would use a sunbed. But there are many people who do, and they often cite the fact that sunbeds make them feel good about themselves, that they feel more self-confident with a nice, golden glow. So who am I to argue with that?

So what’s this new study saying then? Well, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (a bit of a mouthful, yes, but a journal of the mighty American Association for Cancer Research), the study has some pretty scary findings (riskfactorphobes, look away now). Written by researchers from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Masonic Cancer Center, it says indoor tanning devices (sunbeds to me and you) definitively increase the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. DEFINITIVELY.

Whoah. That’s a word you don’t often see in clinical studies. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Let me say it again, there’s a DEFINITIVE link between sunbeds and increased risk of melanoma.

So let’s just have a quick look at what the increased risk is exactly. From studying 2,268 people living in Minnesota (not a bad head count, you have to admit), the researchers conclude that if you use any type of sunbed for any amount of time, you’re 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma. Of course it all depends on what your risk is to begin with, without using sunbeds – if it’s already high (such as you’re fair-skinned, have a family history of melanoma, you’ve got lots of moles, you’ve had a lot of exposure to UV rays etc etc), then an extra 74 percent isn’t exactly going to be desirable.

But let me go on. The study also says that if you use sunbeds frequently (and the researchers’ definition of frequently is 50 hours or more, more than 100 sessions or 10 or more years of use), then you are two-and-a-half to three times more likely to develop skin cancer than someone who has never used a sunbed. Not just that, but the researchers also say their study shows that it doesn’t matter what age you started using sunbeds but that your risk is now more to do with how much you use them. Blimey.

So let me assess my own risk. I am pale and freckly (bad), but there’s no history of melanoma in my family (good) and I have, for at least the last 10 years or more, avoided getting too much sun (also good – ish). BUT I have used sunbeds in the past (disastrous). Not frequently, though (I don’t think I notched up anything like 50 hours or 100 sessions). And I never even changed colour while using them (it was in the days before super-strength tanning bulbs), so I reckon my exposure must have been pretty weak (phew).

I do have some moles though. Some are new ones, and I really must get my GP to look at them. Problem is, however, that from what several people tell me, getting your moles checked is a bit of a hit and miss experience. I good friend of mine has loads of moles. She also spent part of her life living in the Canary Islands – not great if you are worried about past sun exposure. So last year she had this mole on her back and it was getting bigger. It even started crusting and bleeding, so I urged her to get it checked out. Her GP took one look at her and said, ‘Nothing to be worried about..’. I urged her to go back and insist on a hospital referral (I had just written a case study of a woman whose GP had told her a mole was harmless, but it turned out to be a melanoma – the outcome being that she’s lucky to be still alive). The hospital consultant my friend saw was similarly dismissive and apparently spent all of 30 seconds looking at ALL of her moles. Eventually my friend paid to have the big mole removed because she just didn’t trust what the doctors had told her.

So it’s no wonder people are confused. On the one hand they are confronted with scary stories like today’s emerging sunbed study. But when they go to their GP with a concern, they are fobbed off. Okay, I’m not saying all GPs are the same – absolutely far from it – but you’ve got to admit that many people (like myself, yes and I should know better) probably put off getting these things looked at because they’re afraid of being made to feel they’re wasting a health professional’s precious time. Okay I know all you GPs out there aren’t going to like my having said that, but I’m sorry, it does happen.

Oh dear, that was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it?

So the last word on sunbeds? I doubt it. There will be others, I guarantee it.