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Dying for a tan
7:00am Saturday 11th August 2012 in Celebrity Interviews
Yet again, studies find that using sunbeds increases the risk of developing skin cancer, and the number of people in their 50s suffering from the most dangerous form of the disease has quadrupled in the last three decades. But will sunbed addicts ever be able to stop?
By Lisa Salmon
It's no great shock that a new study has found the risk of skin cancer increases by 20% for people who use sunbeds.
What's more surprising is that, despite the risks associated with sunbeds, large numbers of people are still using them.
Estimates suggest that around three million UK adults have regular sunbed sessions and, according to the industry's trade body The Sunbed Association, sales of sunbeds have gone up this year.
The latest research, by the International Prevention Research Institute in France, who reviewed 27 studies, found that the risk of developing cutaneous melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) increased by 20% for people who had used a sunbed.
The risk of melanoma doubled if they started using sunbeds before their 35th birthday.
The researchers are calling for tougher regulations. In the UK, while under-18s are now banned from using sunbeds, the use of the beds by older people is unregulated, and it seems many people are still determined to do anything for a tan.
A major factor is wanting to look good (a Cancer Research UK study found many people think a tan makes them look healthier and more attractive), plus there may be social pressures.
Shops are full of bottled fake tans these days and countless salons offer spray tans but, as psychologist Dr Andrina McCormack points out, getting a professional false tan can be expensive.
"It's not real, it's fake, and some people want a real tan but they might not be able to afford a holiday to get one, so they opt for a sunbed," she says.
Seeing tanned celebrities in the media, peer pressure and fashion are also factors, adds McCormack.
She says: "If you have a tan, even if you're fat and wrinkled, it tells people that you may have enough money to go on holiday a lot, or you certainly have enough leisure time to lie under a sunbed."
To maintain this image, people will often ignore their knowledge of potential health risks.
"You devalue the knowledge to satisfy your self-image and other external influences," McCormack explains. In other words, people convince themselves the risks won't effect them.
This is a real worry for cancer awareness campaigners like Justine Sheils, who raises awareness for Cancer Research UK, and believes using sunbeds for 20 years played a major role in her developing the disease.
Sheils started using the beds at 15 and admits they became a sometimes-daily habit. She knows only too well how easy it is to ignore the risks.
"I'd jump on for half an hour and think nothing of it," she says. "I'm very fair and my friends all had gorgeous dark skin. I wanted to be like them, and a sunbed was a quick way to get a tan.
"I was invincible at 15, but at 35 I was diagnosed with skin cancer."
Twenty years on from her first session, a small lump between her breasts turned into a sore, and Sheils was diagnosed with skin cancer.
"The consultant asked if I used sunbeds, and said what he could see on my chest was what he'd expect to see in an 80-year-old," she recalls.
The malignant melanoma was surgically removed in 2006. However, soon after that, Sheils was told she had another form of the disease, basal cell carcinoma, on her back.
A third type, squamous cell carcinoma, was discovered on her head the following year.
Thankfully, they were all removed, and after a course of chemotherapy Sheils, now 41, says she's "absolutely fine", but knows how lucky she is.
"Looking back, I probably abused sunbeds more than I abused the sunshine. When I think about it now, I think 'How could you be so stupid?'" she says. "But hindsight's a wonderful thing."
Though some campaigners believe the latest research is the "strongest evidence yet" linking sunbeds to skin cancer, not everybody is convinced.
Gary Lipman, chairman of The Sunbed Association, which represents around 20% of the industry, says: "I'd be silly if I said there was no health risk with sunbeds, but the only health risk is excess use."
He believes the vast majority of people who use sunbeds don't over-expose themselves, and points out that while you can fall asleep in the sun and burn, timers on sunbeds prevent this.
Lipman recommends that anybody wanting to use a sunbed should visit a Sunbed Association member salon, where staff will follow the association's code of practice - clients are screened, sessions logged, and the number of visits limited to no more than 60 sessions a year, or three a week.
"We look at your skin and if we think it isn't suitable for tanning, we recommend that you fake tan," he says.
But Sheils believes simply not using sunbeds is the safest solution. "Sunbeds aren't natural - it's like putting a leaf in a microwave and watching it crisp up," she says.
"Because we've not had a good summer, more people will use sunbeds, but it's not healthy.
"There's enough sun protection lotions out there to go out and enjoy the sunshine safely. Just don't get on a sunbed.
"And a tan is easily accessible from a bottle."
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