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There’s no denying that a lot of people feel better with a tan, but the means in which we get them can prove extremely dangerous.
Despite fake tan products becoming more widely available in recent years, some people still choose to use a more natural, yet dangerous way to get a tan: sunbeds.
Sunbeds use ultraviolet (UV) radiation – similar to what the sun emits – to tan people’s skin as it causes melanin to be released. But while it may seem a good idea to have a type of tan that’s not going to come off on your bed sheets, the damage these UV rays can do to your skin can be detrimental to your health.
According to Cancer Research UK, as of 2015, 86% of cases of melanoma (a type of skin cancer) were caused by overexposure to UV radiation. The charity has since said that these 86% of cases could have been preventable.
With this month marking Skin Cancer Awareness Month, consultant dermatologist at Skindoc Sreedhar Krishna spoke to UNILAD about the long-lasting damage sunbeds can have on your skin, even after using a sunbed once.
She said, ‘Sunbeds produce ultraviolet radiation and are used to tan the skin. Unfortunately, the same types of ultraviolet radiation that tan the skin are the same ones that cause sun damage to the skin. The Sunbeds Regulation Act of 2010 does not restrict the type of bulbs or the strength of light used by salons. Thus, a single sunbed use can cause permanent damage that can’t be undone.’
Sreedhar continued to explain that your skin actually tans as a way of protecting itself from sun damage and likened your skin protecting itself this way as the same as closing your blind if the sun was beaming into your bedroom.
Even infrequent use of sunbeds can lead to sunburn. The skin going red is a marker of your skin’s DNA becoming damaged – your body is in panic mode and is telling you to get out of the sun. The body has some capacity to repair damaged DNA but this ability degrades as you get older.
Over time, this will increase the risk of developing skin cancer which will need to be cut out, leading to unsightly scarring. People often end up with skin cancers on the face and can end up with quite disfiguring scars.
Dr. Ross Perry, founder and medical director of Cosmedics, also discussed the damage too much sun exposure from sunbeds in particular can do to your skin.
He explained to UNILAD, ‘As everyone should know, the risk of skin cancer is markedly increased with sun exposure and most notably sunburn. UV rays cause damage to the skin with chronic exposure throughout our lives; that’s why we’re more likely to get skin cancer as we grow older. Acute episodes such as sunburn on holiday and, most notably, sunbeds, can cause it too.’
Dr. Perry further explained that people going on sunbeds before going on holiday to prevent themselves from burning is ‘absolute nonsense’.
From a medical point of view, having tanning sessions on sunbeds is not advisable. It’s absolute nonsense that people believe that it’s better to get a mild tan before they go on holiday so they don’t burn. Any degree of tanning via a micro burn – which sunbeds essentially cause – will cause damage to the collagen of the DNA and, as a result, will increase your risk of skin changes and possibly skin cancer.
One person who developed skin cancer years after being an avid sunbed user was Denise Palmer Davies, now 42, who first started using sunbeds at 14 years old. She said that having a tan was ‘everything’ to her at the time.
Denise recalled to UNILAD, ‘Having a tan was everything in my teens. Fake tan from a bottle wasn’t readily available as it is now. I had a friend who was so beautiful and always tanned. Her secret? She used to hire sunbeds that went over her bed for a month at a time. My older sister by two years was equally as obsessed as me so together we went halves on hiring one with our Saturday job wages. I must have been 14 or 15 at the time.’
‘The guidelines were around 15 minutes,’ Denise continued, ‘but we thought nothing about going under for 30-45 minutes at a time, often burning our skin in the vain hope we would be brown going to school the following day.’
At one point, Denise’s sister even obtained third-degree burns from her sunbed use, which left her in hospital for a week. Despite this, a then-teenage Denise continued to use sunbeds.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Denise was told she’d developed skin cancer after a growth on her back ‘trebled in size over a couple of years’. After being dismissed by her GP, Denise went to visit Dr. Perry, who told her to insist that her doctor should take a biopsy. Twenty-four hours later, she received the devastating news that it was cancer. Fortunately, Denise was able to have the cancer safely removed from her back and has been clear of cancer for two years.
Denise’s sister, now aged 44, also went on to develop skin cancer.
In light of her diagnosis, Denise has advised people to think twice about going on the sunbeds. She said, ‘There’s such a common misconception you can’t get skin cancer when you’re young when in actual fact you can get it at any age. The long-term damage you’re doing to your skin just for a tan is just not worth it.’
Similarly to Denise, Jen Kaarlo also started using sunbeds at the age of 14 and was diagnosed with pre-cancer by the age of 20, meaning some of Jen’s cells had begun to grow abnormally, causing their size, shape or appearance to look different than normal cells.
She told UNILAD, ‘Having a dark golden brown tan was the desired look of the late 90s and early 00s, and at that age I didn’t consider the effects that would plague me for the next two decades of my life. When I started using tanning beds there wasn’t any legislation around an age minimum – some salons asked for a handwritten note from a parent, which could be easily forged, but most didn’t bother all together.’
I was first diagnosed with pre-cancer at age 20. During an allergy test by my GP, he noticed a questionable mole that should be checked out. I never would have guessed that was an outcome I would expect that young. When I was diagnosed I was completely floored – while I would have expected this when I was older, never at this young age.
Despite having surgery to remove the mole, Jen later went on to be diagnosed with skin cancer several more times – most recently in 2016. In light of this, Jen said, ‘It wasn’t until the repeated diagnoses that it really became troubling. I could no longer be carefree about my skin, and would for the rest of my life be diligent about being in the sun.’
Fortunately Jen is currently all clear of cancer, but due to her repeated diagnoses, she has to have annual checks for the rest of her life.
One person who hasn’t been as lucky is Anthea Smith, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2015. Sadly, Anthea was informed at the start of the year that her cancer had spread to other parts of her body and is now receiving palliative treatment.
Coincidentally, like Denise and Jen, Anthea was also 14 when she first started using sunbeds. She describes herself as having become ‘addicted’ to them after using them for the first time as a teenager. Anthea explained, ‘I loved the feeling of tanned skin – I could feel more confident as a 14-year-old. I felt I needed to wear less make up, my skin felt clearer, I would use the sunbed prior to a holiday thinking it would be preparing my skin, or prior to a night out, or an event.’
Recalling her diagnosis and initial surgeries, Anthea continued:
I was diagnosed with melanoma in June 2015 on my left ear. It was a small pearly sized lump initially and each time I had shown my GP, she’d tell me it was just a wart and nothing to worry about. However, it began to grow, and spread across my left ear, which led to me having my left ear amputated with tragus in August 2015.
Sadly, this did not acquire wide margins so I was referred to a skull base surgeon, and endured second surgery in November 2015 which involved inner and middle ear removed, temporal bone removed, parotid gland removed, all salivary glands removed, all left side lymph nodes removed, skin and vessels taken from right leg knee to hip to replace skin on head and neck.
As a result of her surgery, Anthea became permanently deaf on her left side.
Between her 2015 surgeries, Anthea was closely monitored with MRI and CT scans that led to her Stage 4 melanoma diagnosis in September last year. First found to have spread to her right lung, Anthea’s cancer has since spread to different parts of her body.
Speaking about the cancer spreading, Anthea told UNILAD, ‘In January 2021, I began with symptoms of headaches, speech problems, and severe back ache. After a number of scans it was confirmed that the metastatic melanoma has spread to my sacrum, S1 & S2, spinal column T11, bowels, breasts, right lung and brain. As a result, I’m now receiving a targeted therapy treatment in the hope to shrink the tumours, as well as palliative treatment. I have no idea at all how long I have to live. All for a tan! Literally dying for a tan.’
‘I will do all that I can to try to save others from this deadly disease, whilst there’s still breath in my lungs,’ Anthea added.
Anthea has since called on people to accept themselves for who they are, and the skin colour they were born with. She said, ‘People need to realise that sunbeds are truly deadly, and there are no health benefits whatsoever from using them. People also need to learn to love their skin, and accept their skin, it’s their biggest organ and protects all other major organs. Self tans are safe and have amazing results now, all safe and not harmful at all.’
Agreeing with Anthea, Jen added, ‘There is so much beauty in embracing your natural skin colour. While I get the desire to use tanning beds – they’re all too alluring – it’s honestly not worth the potential outcome. Because of using tanning beds when I was in my teens, I now have many deep scars all across my body that are a constant reminder of this idea of beauty that I was chasing. I’m thankful that my doctor found that mole and that I saw a dermatologist, it could have been all too easy to ignore.’
Dr. Perry has advised people to check their moles every two to three months, even in areas that aren’t always exposed to the sun such as the soles of your feet. Things to be looking out for are changes in shape, size and colour, as well as if a mole begins to bleed or starts to itch.
He concluded that, ‘If in doubt, check it out.’
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, 8am–8pm seven days a week.
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