Eastney Naturists

Campaigning to Save the Beach

Published in the Guardian
Wednesday March 8, 2006

The risks of getting a tan are wildly exaggerated and the benefits underplayed, says Sam Shuster

Oliver Burkeman thinks our “unhealthy obsession” with tanning risks ageing and cancer (Going for the burn, February 24). But the increase in tanning parlours in Glasgow, which Burkeman alleges have “exploded across the UK”, isn’t proof of “unhealthy obsession” or “psychological addiction”. Enjoyment of a tan is like cosmetics, dress and other items of fashion – and, as we have shown experimentally, appearance is important for self-image.

Views about ultraviolet radiation (UVR) have changed: it used to be considered beneficial, then fears grew about dangers; but understanding has moved on, leaving Burkeman preaching from an old sheet. Of course UVR has major effects on skin, and we and others have shown that excessive exposure, like smoking, affects collagen, giving a weather-beaten look. But we have also found that true ageing, with its loss of 1% of collagen a year, is equal in exposed and unexposed skin; even if you stay permanently out of the sun your skin will still age.

Burkeman compares skin cancer rates in Scotland and Australia, seemingly unaware that such figures are excluded from international statistics because notification is so unreliable. But the key point missed is that 95% of these “cancers” are benign – probably, as I concluded from a genetic study, because they don’t have the right gene. Most grow to about 1cm, they don’t spread or kill, and are easily removed. In lay terms, they are not cancers. So although they are related to UVR, it is quite wrong to put a blanket of fear on the sun, especially over Glasgow.

Burkeman gives a list of horrors, quoting a social education teacher as saying: “Sun beds … £1.50 for three minutes … a bargain … But it’s not a bargain for a melanoma, is it?” A relationship between melanoma and UVR is dubious, and its cause is unknown. Its incidence has risen but not its mortality (it is actually falling in women despite tanning parlours). The explanation I found is that many are not true melanomas, but moles which come to no harm if left alone. Of course melanomas kill, but the problem has been blown out of all proportion: they are bottom of the list of deaths from cancer. The case for avoiding UVR in the UK because of skin cancer is nonsense.

In presenting the case against UVR so uncritically, Burkeman misses its benefits. Melanin is a biological sunscreen, and a natural tan protects the skin measurably, particularly from burning. Burkeman quotes Consol Suncentre on the important role of UVR in Vitamin D synthesis, essential for the bones, then minimises it with a snide sentence: “Unsurprisingly, the medical establishment sees a slightly different picture.” Sun exposure has an extraordinary effect on mood, now much studied and used therapeutically. It also has a profound effect on the immune system, which may explain the effect of UVR in reducing the incidence of gut, prostate and other cancers. The true balance of benefit and risk of tanning and UVR has still to be established by research. Until then, we should keep our cool.

• Sam Shuster is emeritus professor of dermatology at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital sam@shuster42.freeserve.co.uk

For those of you who get guilt feelings about enjoying the sunshine, here’s a letter in the “Times” which may help.

Awareness of the connection between sunlight exposure and skin cancer (report, March 31) is vitally important to prevent the continuing rise in malignant melanoma in Britain in the last few years. However, we must not overlook the benefits of moderate sunlight for the production of Vitamin D. In Britain it can be made in the skin only between May and September, and 10 to 15 minutes in the sun, without sunscreen, a few times a week is vital to prevent vitamin D deficiency. There is increasing medical evidence that chronic vitamin D deficiency is linked with the well known bone diseases, such as rickets and some cancers (breast and prostate), diabetes and high blood pressure. Regular moderate sunshine may actually reduce the risk of dangerous skin cancer.

Yours faithfully, Dr. Jacqueline Berry,
(Senior research fellow, Vitamin D Research Group.),
University Department of Medicine,
Manchester Royal Infirmary,
Oxford Road,
Manchester M13 9WL.
April 4.

© Eastney Naturist Beach Liaison Group- Eastney Naturists