Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Sunbeds and Skin Cancer

“There is no such thing as a safe tan” is what I have been taught for nearly 40 years, beginning with medical school at Duke University. In that regard, nothing has changed. All persons who go outdoors need to recognize that exposure to sunlight, and therefore to ultraviolet radiation, increases the risk for all forms of skin cancer, most notably melanoma and squamous and basal cell carcinomas. We have since learned that artificial sunlight, and in particular exposure to the radiation emitted from the lights of a tanning bed, also poses risk.

In an article entitled “Cutaneous melanoma attributable to sunbed use: systematic review and meta-analysis” (British Medical Journal 2012;345:e4757 doi:10.1136/bmj.e4757), Mathieu Bonil and his colleagues had the stated intent to estimate the burden of melanoma resulting from sunbed use in western Europe. They did this by reviewing the literature and published surveys reporting prevalence of sunbed use. They concluded that sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with the number of sunbed sessions and with initial use at an age younger than 35 years. They further concluded that cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulations.

Why do people use sunbeds? Their use is overwhelmingly for a cosmetic reason – to acquire a tan. Simply put, putting oneself in the path of harmful ultraviolet rays for the purpose of appearances is not necessary and almost certainly foolhardy. Skin cancer is not a trivial situation, and can lead to substantial morbidity and mortality. Young people have no business risking their futures for the purpose of transiently darkening their skin by tanning.  For those who believe that they need a tan in prophylaxis against upcoming natural sun exposure, it is best to advise them to use sunscreens outdoors instead.


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Tags: General Interest

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.