This site is intended for health professionals only

Shining a ray of light on the harms of tanning

‘Doctor, I’m going on holiday, what should I do to stop my moles getting too much sun?’

‘Keep covered up and don’t get a tan’, is always my reply. 

At this point, the patient usually looks at me like I’ve just told them to slaughter their cat and cook it up for a family barbeque.

How could anybody consider a holiday complete, without a significant proportion of it having been spent in skin irradiation?, says the expression on their face.

We live in a bizarre world, where the mere mention of anything ‘radioactive’ or ‘toxic’ can produce mass panic and health and safety inspectors swarming, like flies around a turd.

Yet come summer time, most of the population seem committed to exposing as much of their flesh to UV radiation for as long as possible.

Worse than this this though, when the sun is not illuminating us with its cancer-inducing rays, most high streets have melanoma – sorry – tanning salons, where, for a price, you can ensure your skin gets no respite from mutagenesis.

Maybe we start telling patients that a sun tan, physiologically speaking, is no different to a bout of gastroenteritis

Can someone explain to me why tanning parlours are legal? What’s more – why is the age restriction only 18? People who first use a tanning parlour before the age of 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75%, and yet this is a legitimate business.

The incidence of malignant melanoma in the UK is increasing every year, and anecdotally I can attest to that. On average, I’m referring a patient with a suspicious skin lesion about every two weeks.

We do need some daylight on our skin to produce vitamin D. About 10-30 minutes in the middle of the day, depending on your skin type, is enough for vitamin D production.

Production of melanin in the skin is the body’s attempt to defend itself from a harmful agent – UV rays. In the same way that diarrhoea and vomiting expel infective and toxic agents from the gastrointestinal tract, and sneezing expels dusts and foreign particles from the nose.

So maybe we start telling patients that a sun tan, physiologically speaking, is no different to a bout of gastroenteritis. Maybe that would make tanning a bit less desirable?

Dr David Turner is a GP in North West London