Eight out of ten sunbed users have increased their risk of a life-threatening form of skin cancer by around 75 per cent according to Cancer Research UK.

A survey of 4000 people, commissioned by the charity, has found that the vast majority of sunbed users (82 per cent) first soaked up the artificial tan enhancing rays before they were 35.

This is particularly dangerous according to a report* published by the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) which found that people who start using sunbeds under the age of 35 increase their risk of malignant melanoma by 75 per cent.

The survey also found that as many as one in three women questioned had used a sunbed. Overall, for men and women, the figure was one in four.

As a result of the survey Cancer Research UK is today launching its SunSmart campaign with a stark warning to sunbed users that over exposure to UV rays in the tanning salon can prove as dangerous as getting burnt on the beach.

Over exposure to artificial UV in sunbeds is just as dangerous as staying out too long in sun. It is a common misconception that sunbeds have had “harmful rays removed” or that sunbeds are “a safe way to tan”. The intensity of some UV rays from sunbeds can be 10-15 times higher than that of the midday sun.

Repeated exposure to UV damages the DNA in skin cells which increases the risk of skin cancer and makes skin age faster.

Malignant melanoma is now the most common cancer in young adults aged between 15 and 34 and can be fatal. More women are diagnosed with melanoma but more men die from the disease.

In the UK almost 9,000 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed each year – and more than 1800 die from the disease each year.

Justine Sheils, a 36-year-old administrator from Liverpool, began using sunbeds when she was 15 so she could get a base tan before summer holidays and then top the tan up when she came home. When she was 32 she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and has since had two major operations to remove cancerous tumours from her chest and the top of her head.

“The tanning salon was near my school and I used to go in for sunbed sessions on my way home,” said Justine. “There was always an occasion like a party or an outing when I had the excuse to top up my tan. Now I see girls of 14 or 15 in their school uniforms going into that same salon I used to use and they come out looking like lobsters.

“They all think something like cancer could never happen to them. But it has happened to me. I get so angry when I hear young celebrities say having a tan makes you look sexy. It’s only when you get older you understand the risks. I just want to do something to warn young people about the possible consequences of using sunbeds. If my story can stop one girl risking melanoma then something good will have come out of my cancer diagnosis.”

Rebecca Russell, Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign manager, said: “The results of our survey make for a stark warning to young people about the dangers of indoor tanning. You can’t always see the damage that UV does straight away. It builds up over time. But every time you use a sunbed you are harming your skin and increasing your risk of skin cancer.

“Our SunSmart campaign has previously focused on the dangers of sunburn which increases your risk of skin cancer. This year our key message is to alert young people about the damage sunbeds can do to their skin, especially if they have fair skin that doesn’t tan easily.”

“Cancer Research UK is particularly concerned about young teenagers using sunbeds and is working with the government to review options for possible regulation of the industry. We would like legislation to prevent under 18s using sunbeds and to ban unmanned coin-operated sunbeds which can attract under-age and vulnerable users.”

Professor Mike Richards, the government’s national cancer director, said: “The Cancer Reform Strategy explained that the number of people getting skin cancer is rising rapidly. It is a matter of particular concern that even children may be getting access to sunbeds and it is also important that they should have information about the dangers of excessive exposure to UV.”


Pictures and interviews with Justine Sheils are available.

For media enquiries call the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300, or the duty press officer on 07050 264059.


*International Journal of Cancer. 2007 Jun 1;120(11):2526. The association of use of sunbeds with cutaneous malignant melanoma and other skin cancers: A systematic review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group on artificial ultraviolet (UV) light and skin cancer.

The survey was conducted by BMRB omnibus by telephone in March 2008 among 4000 adults aged 16+. Results were weighted to make them nationally representative.

The SunSmart campaign is funded by the UK health departments.

Sunbeds and legislation

In Scotland there are proposals for a new Public Health Bill to ban under 18s from using sunbeds and legislate for all sunbed salons to be supervised and proper information provided to customers. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there is public concern about the issue but no existing plans for legislation.

Skin cancer facts

The most common kind of skin cancer is non-melanoma skin cancer. More than 75,000 cases are registered each year in the UK but it is estimated that the actual number is at least 100,000.

Around 9000 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed each year in the UK. Incidence rates of this form of skin cancer have quadrupled since the 1970s.

Around 1800 people a year die from malignant melanoma.

Almost one third of malignant melanoma cases occur in people under 50; it is the most common cancer in young adults aged 15-34.

Skin cancer causes and risks

Excessive UV exposure is the main cause of both kinds of skin cancer. Other factors that increase skin cancer risk are:

  • People with light eyes or hair, who sunburn easily or do not tan
  • People with a lot of moles, unusually shaped or large moles or a lot of freckles
  • A history of sunburn doubles the risk of melanoma
  • Using sunbeds
  • Family history of skin cancer

Finding skin cancer early saves lives

Remember the SunSmart messages

  • S pend time in the shade between 11 and 3
  • M ake sure you never burn
  • A im to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses
  • R emember to take extra care with children
  • Then use factor 15+ sunscreen

Also report mole changes or unusual skin growths promptly to your doctor.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.