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The Healthy Bear on the Risks of a “Healthy” Tan

Hey there Guys,

I know I have previously posted about melanoma and skin cancer, however last weekend the hot news was one state in Australia banning UV sunbeds to help reduce the melanoma rate. As noted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Commercial tanning beds will be banned in NSW under radical new laws to be announced by the government today.

NSW will be the only place in the world besides Brazil to institute a total ban on ultraviolet solariums tanning units when the laws come into place from December 31, 2014, and cancer groups hope other states and countries will follow…

The Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, chose World Cancer Day to make her announcement, saying sun beds were carcinogenic and the International Agency for Research on Cancer had placed them in the same category of risk as asbestos. “Sadly, Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world and this ban is long overdue.”

Australians have always had a reputation for being sun worshippers with some tanners choosing to use sun beds as an alternative to time in the sun. Offering a concentrated dose of UV light, sun beds almost double the risk of developing malignant melanoma.

Around 2007 Australia became more aware of the potential risks of sun beds when a 26 year old girl, Clare Oliver, died of metastatic melanoma that was diagnosed at the  young age of 21. During her life she had significant sun exposure, however a large portion of her increased melanoma risk was attributed to a special “buy 10, get 20 tanning sessions” voucher she had purchased at the age of 19.

As noted at The Skin Cancer Foundation website Clare wrote before her death:

“If I could go back and talk to myself when I was 19 I would tell that girl not to use a solarium… Subconsciously I did know that cancer was involved with solariums because I was aware of UVA and UVB rays. But when I was 19, I saw a cheap offer: ‘Buy 10 sessions and get 20.’”

The World Health Organization goes on to say:

As with sun exposure, recent studies indicate a relationship between the use of sunbeds and malignant melanoma as well as non-melanoma skin cancers such as squamous and basal cell carcinomas. Thus, the consequences of regular sunbed use may include disfigurement from removal of skin cancers, early death if the cancer is a malignant melanoma, as well as substantial costs to national health systems for screening, treating and monitoring skin cancer patients.

While there are some who claim that sun beds have the health benefit of increasing vitamin D levels, a vitamin created in the skin after exposure to UVB rays, this is not the case. The high pressure lamps in majority of solariums produce mainly UVA waves that penetrate deep into the skin causing damage at the deeper skin levels.

So what’s the bottom line on sun beds?

It is well established that tanning is one of the main factors in developing skin cancers. Sun beds simply accelerate the process, exposing users to higher levels of radiation over shorter periods of time. They are not recommended.

What about tanning injections?

As the community becomes more aware of the risks associated with sun exposure people have begun looking for alternative ways to gain tans without the sun.

One injectable product that has seen increasing use is “Melanotan”, also known as “the Barbie drug”. Melanotan is a peptide designed to stimulate melanocytes, the skin cells responsible for tanning but also melanoma.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency of the UK (MHRA) reports:

Melanotan I and melanotan II are types of peptide hormones that increase the levels of the pigment melanin in the body.

Melanotan is an unlicensed medicine in the UK: its quality, safety, and efficacy have not been established. Melanotan I and melanotan II are allegedly intended for research purposes only. To comply with legislative requirements, the person in charge of the research needs to present a signed order to a pharmacist. The order must state the name of the company, purpose for which the medicine is being used, and quantity needed.

The MHRA is aware that melanotan is being sold on various websites and in some tanning salons and gyms as an injectable product that gives the effect of a ‘suntan’.

At present, we do not know how serious any side-effects of melanotan might be. Melanotan has to be reconstituted with water for injection (eg, bacteriostatic water for injections) before subcutaneous administration. Given this route of administration, the risk to public health is potentially high.

To get to the bottom line, melanotan is an untested medicine currently sold via a number of technical loopholes in many countries.

My biggest concern is if your skin is already damaged and you have early melanoma, adding a medicine that is going to stimulate these cells has the potential to accelerate melanoma throughout the body. Given that melanoma needs only one damaged cell to start, is this a risk you would be willing to take?

Guys, protect your safety. Do not purchase any medication that is untested, potentially illegal, and that may accelerate the risk of deadly cancer.

Is there such a thing as a safe tan?

In my honest opinion, the answer is no. For me as an Australian I consider my risk of skin cancer way too high to be interested in having a “healthy glow”.

For those who are keen to have the darker tones to your skin I highly recommend considering spray tans and other non invasive options. Is your life really worth that tan?

I want to leave you with the words of Clare Oliver who died three weeks after this was recorded.

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Yours in good health.

Dr George

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