Seriously browned off

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the damaging rays of sunbeds, says Áilín Quinlan.

REBECCA Ward, 17, is so pale that on cloudy days she uses factor 15 sun-cream. Yet, when she visited tanning salons on behalf of the Irish Cancer Society, earlier this month, all booked her in without warning her about her extremely fair skin or checking her age.

The ICS says that sunbeds are more dangerous for people with fair skin and for those under the age of 18.

ICS cancer information nurse Jennifer Ledwith says young skin is vulnerable to damage — and skin cancer risk is affected by the amount of sun exposure in the first 15 years of life.

Rebecca, from Bettystown, Co Meath, is vulnerable. “I have pale skin and burn very easily,” says the second-level student, who was disheartened by the cavalier attitude of the Dublin salons she visited on Wednesday, Aug 8.

Rebecca told the salons she planned to be a bridesmaid at a wedding in October. “I visited seven tanning salons around Dublin. I was dressed very casually, with minimal makeup. I certainly wasn’t going out to look older than I am.

“None of them asked me about my age. None of them warned me against using a tanning bed because of my fair skin, and none of them offered me alternatives.”

Studies by the International Prevention Research Institute, in France, show the risk of cutaneous melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, rose by 20% for people who had used a sunbed. The risk of melanoma doubled for people who started using sunbeds before the age of 35.

“I don’t understand people who use tanning beds when you can go down to the shop and pick up a bottle of tan, which is cheaper, easier and so much better for your skin. I don’t know why people would use a tanning bed, especially now that it is being claimed that tanning beds can be as dangerous as smoking,” says Rebecca, referring to 2009 findings by the International Agency for Research.

Researchers found a 75% increase in the risk of cancer when people under the age of 30 used sunbeds. As a result, the agency upgraded the health risks of sunbeds, considering them as carcinogenic as cigarettes.

The ICS launched today a campaign to restrict sunbed usage and highlight its dangers.

People who have used a sunbed even once have a 15% increased risk of melanoma.

If you use a sunbed once a month or more, the ICS says, your cancer risk climbs by more than 50%.

“Using a sunbed is not a safer way of getting a tan than from the sun. It exposes your skin to UVA and UVB rays that damage your skin cells and can lead to skin cancer,” the ICS says.

The UV radiation from a sunbed can be 15 times higher than from the midday Mediterranean sun.

Yet, says Rebecca, the salons encouraged her to use their solariums: “I deliberately asked about the implications for my fair skin. One salon said I should use the tanning bed more often, as it would take me longer to build up my tan. I was told I should start soon and do it more often.

“I would have liked at least one place to tell me that I was too fair-skinned for a tanning bed, but not one did. I was shocked.

“And there were no warning signs in the salons about the potential risks of using sun beds.”

Rebecca’s experience proved a point for the ICS, which has been calling for five years for sunbed regulation.

The long-awaited public health (sunbeds) bill will ban the use of sunbeds by anyone under 18; ban the selling or hiring of sunbeds to anyone under 18; and ban sunbeds in unsupervised premises.

This proposed legislation, expected to be passed later this year, will also require the erection of warning signs in sunbed premises and warning labels on the sunbeds.

The ICS also wants tanning salons to be prohibited from allowing people with type one and type two skin — the fairest skin-types — to use sunbeds.

However, although the use of sunbeds by under-18s is illegal in Britain, there is still no regulation of the industry here — and, says ICS spokeswoman Rachel Morrogh, the society’s survey shows a glaring need for legislation.

Despite the widely publicised dangers of sun-bed use, 140,000 people in Ireland use sunbeds regularly, 88% of those are women, and 20% are between the ages of 15 and 24 years.

Niall Tracey, owner of Tanzone salons, in Temple Bar and Blanchardstown, says the industry would welcome regulation. “We have a strict 18s-plus policy on sunbed use,” he says, and his staff have turned away under-18s seeking to use a sunbed.

“People should start at a very low level. They shouldn’t use a sunbed two days in a row, and if they find that they would like to increase the number of minutes, they should increase it by a maximum of one minute per session, until they reach their natural tanning level. People need to be educated as much as possible about sunbed use,” he says.

The lack of regulation means anyone can use sunbeds, which expose the skin to ultra-violet radiation similar to sunshine. This releases a chemical called melanin, which causes the tan.

“I know a lot of girls my age who don’t leave the house unless they look like they were back from Majorca,” says Rebecca, adding that nobody under the age of 21 should be allowed to use a tanning bed.

But why are Irish people so obsessed with being brown? Abigail Kerins, one of the authors of a report, Altering Tanning Attitudes and Behaviours, completed last January as a project by four marketing students at Trinity College Dublin, says for young people it’s a way of fitting in.

The report, which surveyed 100 people between the ages of 15 and 25, found that Irish teenagers are also preoccupied with what they would consider to be a healthy tanned skin.

“A lot of young people seem to think it’s more attractive than pale skin, that it looks healthy and, also, that it makes them look thinner. Adolescents are also very vulnerable to fitting in with their social group — there’s a lot of peer pressure involved,” says Abigail.

Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they would use sunbeds, despite the fact that more than 96% of them were aware of a link between skin cancer and sunbeds.

Media conditioning is a major factor, while there’s a social impetus to look attractive, says psychologist Patricia Murray. “All the fashion magazines, etc, present tanned, brown skin as something good.”

Being tanned, Patricia says, is now “up there” with being tall and skinny and long-limbed.

“In our culture, being tanned is part of the package of being attractive — that’s the way it’s presented on TV, in magazines and in society. “When you’re a teenager, you want to be attractive and popular. You want to be thin, long-limbed, wear designer clothes and be tanned.”

And while fair-skinned celebrities, such as Katie Perry, do have some impact, says Patricia, they are in the minority.

We’re an image-obsessed society, Patricia says, but she believes that obsession is with a narrow image of beauty, which, among other things, emphasises the need for tanned skin.

“Fair skin can be gorgeous if you wear the right colours and make-up, but girls don’t realise this. I regularly see gangs of girls on Grafton St with the dyed-blonde, straightened hair and the fake tan. They’re like clones,” she says.

ICS nurse Jennifer Ledwith, who has a special interest in skin cancer, says many people are not aware that sunbeds use UV rays, nor do they understand the damage they can do to skin.

“Nine out of 10 cases of skin cancer are caused by UV rays from the sun or from sunbeds,” Ms Ledwith says. “It’s often the pale-skinned people who burn easily who are the ones looking for tan and they are more susceptible to burning at a younger age.

“The Irish Cancer Society is concerned that, without regulations prohibiting under-18s from using sunbeds, the incidence in melanoma skin cancer will rise even further. There are no controls whatsoever for children and young people, yet the international evidence rates sunbed use on a level with smoking.”

Stay safe

Some things to keep in mind about sunbeds — a warning from the Irish Cancer Society:

¦ If you never tan from being in the sun you won’t tan on a sunbed

¦ Having a tan is not a sign of healthy skin — it’s a sign of skin damage

¦ Using a sunbed before going on a sun holiday is not safer than getting a tan from the sun

Using a sunbed is more dangerous for people who:

¦ Are under the age of 18

¦ Have fair skin that burns easily, tans slowly or poorly and tends to freckle

¦ Have a history of frequent childhood sunburn

¦ Have a large number of moles

¦ Are taking medication or using creams which makes skin more sensitive to UV radiation.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure, if you:

¦ Have a medical condition that is worsened by sunlight

¦ Have a family member who has suffered from skin cancer.

For more info visit


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