As holidaymakers throng to sunsoaked resorts to bronze themselves, many will return with far more than a 'healthy glow', experts warn…
Beauty trends encourage clear blemish-free healthy skin. When asked what we generally perceive to symbolise a healthy person we often think of acres of glowing tanned skin, lightly roasted by the sun. So naturally the rise in tanning, especially amongst women, has evolved over recent years to keep up with the desire for cosmetic and fashion trends.
There are two routes to develop a natural tan – artificially assisted by a sun bed or tanning booth with concentrated UV rays. The other is, of course, whiling away the hours under the sun itself. Both methods have come under fire for being more harmful to the skin than beneficial with high numbers of skin cancers being linked to UV rays.
About 90 per cent of cancers are UV related, estimates Cancer Research UK. The World Health Organisation counts two million new cases of skin cancer every year – that's one in three cancers diagnosed. A 132,000 of these will be malignant melanoma – the most fatal of skin cancers.
So what's so wrong with spending mere minutes under a sun lamp? Short-wavelength UVB rays were noted for causing cancers in lab animals. However, sun beds use long-wavelength UVA rays that penetrate the skin far deeper contributing to the rise of skin cancers. The World Health Organization (WHO) found no evidence to suggest that UV exposure from a sunbed is less detrimental than that from the natural sun.
Indeed WHO still found pre-cancerous tissue (such as actinic keratoses lesions) and Bowen's disease, a cancer of the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) which can also spread to the lymphatic system, in sunbed users who used sunlight protection.
The three most common skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma all seem to be caused by UV radiation, says the Skin Cancer Foundation, based in New York.
They claim that the cancer is caused via three routes. Firstly, the UV rays cause damage to DNA leading to mutations. Secondly, activated oxygen molecules, as a result of ultraviolet light, further damage DNA. Finally, the body's immune system is damaged preventing it from fighting against cancer development.
Despite UV exposure being a world-recognised source of skin cancers, it should be surprising that tanning salons are still springing up. More surprising still is that their clientele are largely unaware of the risks involved as salon's staff often play down the importance of skin cancer.
WHO found that whilst artificial tanning is largely left to the discretion of salon owners – who don't have to conform to any set guidelines – there is little evidence of effective self-regulation.
Conversely many salons actually actively promote longer tanning. It is rare to see posters advising the dangers of tanning along side cut-price treatments or 'bonus' minutes at dirt-cheap prices.
It isn't just skin cancer that is a dangerous by-product of excessive UV exposure. Sun also contributes to photoaging where the skin loses elasticity, ages and wrinkles. The most susceptible people to these complaints are those with fairer skins because they have less melanin in their skin. Those with fair skins, however, are more likely to increase their tanning time to achieve desired colouring.
Heavy sun exposure also leads to leathering of the skin, leaving it tougher to sight and touch – at odds with the healthy glow many fans of tanning aim to achieve.
In the pursuit of golden tans, the sun's danger can also extend to damaged eyes. Damage takes the form of growths over the cornea (pterygium), cataracts and inflammation such as photo-conjunctivitis.
Unfortunately for long fans of tanning, the immediate benefits seem to be contradictory of medical evidence. Accelerated, immediate tans belay skin problems that may not occur or become visible for several years, by which time the damage is done.
Sun Dial Laboratories have recently launched Uvasol one of the first sunscreens to be issued with a health warning in response to the increase in skin cancers. Aiming to be educational as well as vital in sun protection the label reads: "Warning – overexposure to the sun's UV radiation can damage your health."
Managing Director Bill White, says: "The statistics for UV related skin cancers has risen alarmingly in the last five years. The fashion and desire to have tanned skin has become increasingly popular."
White believes that cheap packages holidays which offer accessibility to hotter climates combined with the lack of education about the sun's rays are at the root of the rise in skin cancers.
"The general lack of public awareness to the dangers of overexposure to UV rays and the misinterpretation of the protection afforded by many 'sunscreen' products means people are now more vulnerable to damaging their health, "says White. "Uvasol has been developed with all this in mind."
Are there benefits to be had from sun?
The rise of skin problems associated with tanning and over exposure to the artificial and natural sun are undoubtedly on the upturn. However, there are still beneficial side effects to be gained from 'safe' exposure. Sunlight boosts our Vitamin D levels, which is responsible for regulating calcium levels in the blood. Primarily this helps to promote healthy bones.
Paradoxically, Vitamin D promotes anti-cancer properties and is produced as a result of being in the sun. The nutrient can also be found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon. WHO recommends that dietary measures should be taken if there is a need to improve Vitamin D production, as normal day-to-day sun exposure should provide adequately for general wellbeing.
Furthermore, sunbed worshippers reported feelings of increased relaxation and wellbeing after spending time in the sun. WHO counters that is hard to quantify these claims.
Can you tan safely?
WHO recommends that babies less than six months should not be exposed to the sun at all and those six months plus should wear a sun lotion with a high UVA factor. They also recommend that children and teens should not use sun beds at all as this raises the incidence of skin cancers in later life.
Some skin types have been found not to tan at all, rendering artificial tanning relatively pointless. Skin types are classed in six stages, with Stage I, the lightest skin, not tanning at all despite repeat exposure. Unfortunately, it is the fairest skins that are more at risk of fashion pressures to use sun beds.
Regardless of ability to tan or not, sunscreen should still be applied. Sunscreens with protection against both UVA and UVB rays should be used when in the sun, taking care to cover the most exposed areas such as nose, ears and forehead. The SPF label indicates how much UVB is filtered but to date, there isn't a set standard for UVA filtration levels yet.
Cancer research UK recommends using sunscreen with a minimum SPF 15 protection as the best balance between price and protection.
It should be remembered that sunscreen doesn't mean you can increase your stay in the sun. Instead it only offers some protection whilst you are out and should be reapplied at regular intervals. Clothing, hats with brims and sunglasses should be used in conjunction with sunscreen to protect against UV rays.
The only really safe tan, however, is a fake tan courtesy of the bottle.