If you asked someone under the age of 35 if they wanted to increase their risk of skin cancer their answer would be ‘no’. But the truth is that using sunbeds before turning 35 can increase your risk of the deadliest kind of skin cancer – malignant melanoma.

Many young people aren’t aware of just how vulnerable young skin is to high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and the risks they are taking by using sunbeds.

When the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act comes into force today, it will help to protect the most vulnerable by stopping under-18s from using sunbeds. This legislation, which we backed from the outset, is an important step to help turn the ever-increasing tide of skin cancer in the UK.

Skin cancer is a largely preventable disease, but, as the graph shows, the number of cases has more than quadrupled in the UK over the last thirty years.

Skin cancer incidence graph

Melanoma incidence, Great Britain, 1975-2008

Even more worryingly, rates of malignant melanoma among young people have seen a dramatic rise, even though the disease typically affects older people.

In the late seventies, there were around 290 cases of malignant melanoma annually among 15-34 year olds. Now more than 900 young Britons are being diagnosed with the disease every year – that’s more than two every day.

Along with binge-tanning and excessive exposure to the sun, the increasing popularity of sunbed salons over the last 30 years may have contributed to this rise.

The evidence that sunbeds can lead to malignant melanoma is clear. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation’s expert body that examines the evidence on what causes cancer, re-classified sunbeds as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is its highest cancer risk category, reserved for things where the evidence is strongest – such as tobacco. IARC also found that, on average, people who start using sunbeds under the age of 35 increase their risk of malignant melanoma by 75 per cent.

Because young people are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of sunbeds, Cancer Research UK, along with the World Health Organisation, recommends that under-18s should not use them.

Worryingly though, we know that this message hasn’t been getting through, and large numbers of young people in the UK are using sunbeds. Our research found that more than a quarter of a million children in England have used sunbeds. In some areas of the country, such as Liverpool and Sunderland, around 50 per cent of 15-17 year old girls have used them.

At the beginning of 2010, we worked with Julie Morgan, the former MP for Cardiff North, Sian James MP and Baroness Finlay to campaign for legislation to address this problem. After an intense campaign, including lots of meetings, letters and emails from our supporters and an appearance in Parliament by Girls Aloud star Nicola Roberts, our hard work paid off. Just four months later MPs passed the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act that restricts the use of sunbeds to over-18s.

To make the legislation even more effective, and to bring England in line with the other nations of the UK, we believe the government should introduce the supporting measures included in the legislation as a matter of urgency. These additional measures will ensure that all sunbed salons are staffed by properly trained staff and that all adults are given appropriate health information about the risks.

That said, the introduction of the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act is a vital step in protecting young people from the risks associated with sunbed use.

It will take a few years before we can conclusively evaluate the impact of the legislation, but it should help to curb the alarming increases in skin cancer over the last 30 years. Opportunities like this are rare and we would like to congratulate everyone who seized the chance to support this legislation.

If you want to find out more about the role Cancer Research UK supporters played in securing this important legislation, then there’s more information on our website.