No Tan Is a Safe Tan

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Evidence is accumulating that there is no such thing as a "safe tan."

Ultraviolet rays, no matter where you get them from, cause skin cancer, and the purported health benefits of UV rays, such as vitamin D production, are overstated, if not downright wrong.

So say a trio of papers published in the October issue of Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research.

"There's a lot of money to be made, and the tanning industry has been quite successful even in places like New Mexico and South America selling tanning as a safe alternative to outdoor sun. We're trying to point out that it's not the case," said Marianne Berwick, author of one of the papers and a professor of internal medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque.

"We wanted to counter the marketing and a response to the misperception of the true cost/benefit analysis of UV radiation," said Dr. David Fisher, director of the Melanoma Program in Medical Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, president of the Society of Melanoma Research, and author of one of the other papers in the journal.

Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States, with 1 million new cases in 2008, and an estimated one in five people developing some type of skin cancer during their lifetime. Ultraviolet radiation is a major risk factor for all types of skin cancer.

Yet, the tanning industry continues to grow, with revenues increasing fivefold since 1992, according to background information in the journal.

But there is rampant evidence that tanning of any kind is not safe and carries few, if any, health benefits.

"The first step [to both skin cancer and a tan] is DNA damage. That tells us that there's one common initiating event, and it is a carcinogenic event through which you get your tan, so the concept of a safe tan becomes essentially impossible," Fisher said.

Moreover, claims that tanning may not lead to melanoma, as opposed to other forms of skin cancer, are based on cleverly skewed interpretations of complex molecular phenomenon, Fisher added.

"There is no controversy whatsoever about the presence of UV signature mutations in squamous cell carcinoma. You can see that the genes have been mutated in a way that UV directly caused it," he explained. "The melanoma connection to UV is probably indirect, so you wouldn't see the mutation directly in the melanoma cell even though the UV caused it."

"The tanning industry has seized on that complexity."

A representative for the tanning industry refuted the findings using that exact argument.

"Here are three more studies that make irresponsible assertions without providing any concrete link between indoor tanning and melanoma," said John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association. "The fact is, UV light provides vitamin D, which helps the body ward off many types of diseases, and the rewards that come with moderate and responsible exposure to UV light far outweigh the consequences of not getting enough of it."

But Fisher noted vitamin D can come from other, safer sources.

"We know that vitamin D is synthesized in the skin after ultraviolet radiation hits the skin. It's how you couch the discussion when the indoor tanning association took out a full-page ad in The New York Times right before prom season and lists all the good things about vitamin D," Fisher said. "Basically, you're getting vitamin D from a carcinogen."

Not only can vitamin D be obtained from supplements, a simple blood test can tell a person if he or she is actually deficient in the vitamin.

The World Health Organization and other organizations have called for a ban on sunbed use by individuals under the age of 18. According to the papers in the journal, the industry has lobbied against such a ban.

More information

Learn more about skin cancer at the American Academy of Dermatology.

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