A new report released today by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is short, sweet and to the point: tanning devices are a Class I cause of cancer in humans.
The report, which was published in Lancet Oncology, reviews the cancer causing effects of various types of radiation, is bound to create more controversy regarding the use of tanning beds, especially in young women who are probably the most prolific users of these devices.
The reality is that the issue is no longer controversial. Tanning beds cause cancer. No tanning bed is safe, and there is no excuse or reason to use one.
As noted in the report, there are various types of solar—or sun related—radiation. Many of us are familiar with UVB radiation from the sun, and that is the type that for years was the main target of the many sunscreens available in the marketplace.
More recently, increased attention has been paid to UVA radiation, but it wasn’t quite as clear that this type of sun related radiation caused cancer. Now, as the evidence begins to accumulate, it is becoming clearer that UVA radiation also causes skin cancer.
The problem has been that the tanning bed folks have been claiming that tanning beds are “safe” because the bulbs they use are much more UVA than UVB.
But the IARC report does away with that argument. As the scientists noted in the report, the same of precancerous changes that have been seen in UVB induced skin changes have now also been found in UVA exposed skin. (There is also UVC radiation, but that is absorbed in the atmosphere, so we are not exposed to it like we are to UVA and UVB.)
The net result is that solar radiation has been linked to all forms of skin cancer, but this has been thought in the past to be due to UVB radiation. The report now connects UVA to the same effect, thus linking this form of radiation to all types of skin cancer as well.
There are several forms of skin cancer. The most common ones—basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers—account for well over 1 million cases of skin cancer every year. These forms of cancer are considered less serious, since they tend to be cured with a simple or sometimes more complex excision. Occasionally, however, they can be large and treatment can be disfiguring, and some times they can spread to other parts of the body.
On the other hand, the third type of skin cancer, called melanoma, can be very serious and unfortunately too frequently can be deadly. This type of cancer can also be frequently cured if found early, but too often it can spread throughout the body and lead to death. Sometimes, even very small lesions can act very aggressively for reasons that we do not understand.
In 2009, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 68,720 invasive melanomas diagnosed in the United States, with the majority of these in men. 8650 men and women in the United States will die from melanoma. Again, the majority of these deaths will occur in men. There will also be 53,120 non-invasive melanomas diagnosed in this country in 2009.
The sad story, however, is that some of these melanomas will occur in young women.
As noted in the IARC report, the risk of melanoma is increased 75% in those people who start using tanning beds before the age of 30.
We all know young people—especially young women—who think that having a tan is “cool” or “sexy” or whatever word is in fashion at the moment. They get tans for the prom, they get “base tans” before going to the beach in the false belief this will protect their skin.
Now we have the evidence that those tans are not safe at all, and can have deadly consequences. The tanning beds themselves are now Class I cancer causing agents—just like cigarettes.
There have been others who have promoted tanning beds for a variety of health reasons, including getting adequate vitamin D. Once again, there are safe alternatives—namely various fortified foods and over the counter vitamins and oral forms of vitamin D3 which are a heck of a lot safer than going to a cancer-causing tanning salon.
This IARC report is bound to give new impetus to those who want to restrict tanning bed usage in young people, and even ban them altogether. Various states are considering laws to do just that. Classifying tanning beds as a Class I carcinogen may just get the job done once and for all.
The report also links tanning beds to a rare but no-less-deadly form of melanoma that occurs in the eye, called ocular melanoma.
So what should you do?
The bottom line is that you should engage in sun safe behaviors. Being in the sun is—truth be told—part of a healthy lifestyle. Mind you, that’s not because of the sun, but because being outside and getting exercise is good for you. But when you are outside for any length of time, you should practice sun-safe behaviors.
We have a phrase that’s simple to remember: Slip, Slop, Slap. The translation: Slip on a shirt (preferably one that is dark colored to absorb more of the sun’s harmful rays), slop on the sunscreen (a palmful applied regularly will do the trick) and slap on a (wide brimmed) hat. And, while you’re at it, put on a pair of UV-protective sunglasses. We should also note that children should be especially careful, since getting a sunburn at a young age is a significant risk factor for developing melanoma later in life.
Although we have been cautioning people about the risk of tanning beds for sometime, this new IARC report raises the bar and sounds a more shrill alarm. Tanning beds cause cancer, and there is no longer any legitimate excuse to allow their use, especially for the most vulnerable young people who think they will live forever despite risky behaviors.
The risk of skin cancer from tanning beds—according to IARC—has just become a lot more risky. It’s time to say good-bye to the myth that they are healthy for you and your skin.