The debate over the safety of sun beds has been raging for years, but it took a new twist this week when the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer put tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation in the top category for cancer risk - which means they are now deemed to be a human carcinogen. The ultraviolet light emitting tanning beds had been previously considered a "probable" cause of cancer.
The new classification could help put to rest some of the mixed messages consumers hear about the safety of tanning beds from the tanning industry. There are some misconceptions that health advocates say they hope will soon change:
Claim: Sun exposure, in moderation, is safe for many people, such as people who don't have fair skin and red hair, according to the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, an industry group.
Response: Health Canada has created information on its website for consumers about safety of tanning lights which says, "There is no safe way to tan. A tan from the sun's rays or under lights in a tanning salon will damage your skin."
Claim: There is "no research" that links moderate, non-sunburn-related sun exposure, to increased risk of cancer or other problems, according to a press release issued by the Joint Canadian Tanning Association in response to the WHO report.
Response: The International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed about 20 scientific studies and found the risk of skin cancer jumps when people start using tanning beds before age 30. New research has emerged in recent years that shows risks can increase even when a person doesn't experience a sunburn, according to Heather Chappell, acting director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society.
Claim: Tanning beds can help Canadians produce adequate levels of vitamin D, which has been found to decrease risks for certain types of cancer, particularly in winter months when there is little sun exposure.
Response: Tanning beds are a source of some ultraviolet B radiation, which can help the body produce vitamin D. But they have also been found to emit five times the ultraviolet A rays as the sun during peak times, according to information about tanning safety compiled by Health Canada. Although ultraviolet A rays have typically been associated with an increased risk for cancer, the new WHO report shows that all kinds of ultraviolet rays led to mutations in mice, which raises fears they could increase cancer risks in humans. The bottom line, according to Ms. Chappell at the cancer society, is that there's "much safer alternatives" for getting vitamin D. The society recommends getting a few minutes of sun exposure when the sun isn't at its peak (between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and taking supplements during winter months.
Claim: "Pre-tanning," or using a sun bed before going on vacation to a sunny destination, can help provide a protective base tan, according to the tanning association.
Response: The Canadian Cancer Society said tanning before a vacation may provide protection equivalent to SPF 4, but that there are better alternatives to protection from the sun's harsh rays, such as sunscreen with high SPF levels or wearing clothing.