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Tanning beds boost your risk of skin cancer

Consumer Reports News: August 06, 2009 04:05 PM

Contrary to popular belief, tanning beds are not a safe alternative to outdoor tanning. In fact, using sunbeds before age 30 increases your risk of melanoma by 75 percent, says a new study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Sunbeds, like the sun, emit harmful UV rays, and some UVB rays, that damage the DNA in skin cells. In recent years sunbeds have been manufactured to produce higher levels of UVB to speed the tanning process. According to Cancer Research UK, using a sunbed just once a month can increase your risk of skin cancer by more than half. Ultraviolet radiation, including exposure from tanning beds, is linked to most of the 1.5 million skin cancers and the 8,000 melanoma deaths in the U.S. each year. And if you’re soaking in ultraviolet rays, skin cancer isn’t your only worry—you’re also at a heightened risk for wrinkles, eye damage, including cataracts and inflammation, and infectious diseases.

The study reasserts what we’ve said about tanning beds for years. In a 2005 investigative report, we found widespread failures by tanning facilities to inform customers of the risks of sunbeds. In fact, 75 percent of the surveyed employees said customers could come in every day or as often as they liked, even if they were beginners, and nearly 35 percent of the employees denied that tanning beds can cause skin cancer.

Forty percent of respondents to our recent survey said they were most worried about cancer as a result of sun exposure—more so than wrinkles, age spots, or whether sunscreen ingredients might harm them. And they’re right to be worried. One in three cancers diagnosed worldwide is a skin cancer, and Americans have about a 1 in 70 chance of getting melanoma at some point in their life. You’re at greater risk for skin cancer if you have:

  • Lots of moles on your body (more than 50 moles is a lot) or moles with jagged edges or different color in them
  • A previous skin cancer
  • Relatives who have had skin cancer
  • Bad sunburns when you were growing up
  • Fair skin
  • Freckles
  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • A job where you are exposed to chemicals such as coal tar and arsenic
  • A weak immune system (for example, if you have HIV or AIDS).

Bottom line: Don’t use tanning beds. If you must have that bronzy glow, consider sunless tanning products. If you’re going out in the sun, apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. And don’t forget the sunscreen on overcast days, since the sun’s radiation can penetrate clouds. And it’s wise, particularly if you’ve spent long periods of time in the sun or have used a sunbed, to get a screening.

Ginger Skinner

Find out how to check the size, shape, color, and texture of moles on your body. Before you go out in the sun, see our tips on staying safe in the sun and our new sunscreen Ratings.

Photo courtesy of Evil Erin

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