Skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK. There are various types of it. This page looks at the melanoma form of skin cancer.

There is one main factor that increases the risk of developing melanoma - ultraviolet light (radiation). Ultraviolet light comes from the sun or sunbeds.

Fortunately, skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Relatively small changes to the way people behave in the sun can lead to a considerable reduction in personal risk. Protecting the skin from the sun by wearing protective clothing, using a sunscreen with appropriate sun protection factor, wearing a hat and avoiding the sun at certain times are all recommended as primary preventive activities by cancer agencies across the world.

Studies show that most people are aware of the risks associated with sun exposure, but that they need constant reminders to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves. Therefore educational programmes aimed at reducing exposure to ultraviolet light and to improving people’s knowledge and attitudes to sun protective behaviours are central to addressing the rising incidence of skin cancer.

The CIEH believes that local authorities and health departments have a key role to play in getting the messages across and protecting people from risk. An effective prevention strategy has three main components: 

  • Promotion of ‘sun safe’ behaviour – public education about the health hazards of UVR exposure and what can be done to reduce risk 
  • Environmental measures – structural changes to provide protection from the sun by providing adequate shade, monitoring to ensure the controlled use of sun tanning establishments 
  • Early detection – public education to emphasise the importance of early reporting of potentially dangerous lesions 

For more information on both melanoma and non melanoma cancer, please visit the Cancer Research UK website.

▼ Skin cancer and sunbeds 

There is increasing evidence that the inappropriate use of sunbeds contributes to the incidence of skin cancer. Sunbeds give out harmful UV rays which can damage the DNA in our skin cells and over time this damage can build up to cause skin cancer. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, studies have shown that the risk of cutaneous melanoma is increased by 75% when the use of tanning devices starts before the age of 30. Sunbeds can also cause premature skin ageing, which means that your skin becomes coarse, leathery and wrinkled at a younger age. Cancer Research UK has developed a useful web page which looks at the issue of sunbeds and explores some of the myths surrounding them.

In June 2009 The Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) published the report of a working group set up to provide advice to the government on the need for additional controls on sunbeds. The working group, upon which the CIEH was represented, recommended the following measures:

  • Prohibiting the use of commercial sunbeds by under 18s
  • Prohibiting the unsupervised use and/or self determined operation of sunbeds in commercial outlets
  • All commercial outlets should be licensed/registered, with equipment that adheres to the British Standard
  • Salons to have trained and competent staff
  • Salons should be required to provide detailed written information on the health risks associated with the use of sunbeds
  • Commercial outlets should be prohibited from promoting unproven health benefits of sunbed use.

Working with CRUK we successfully supported the passing by Parliament of the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 and assisted the Department of Health in drawing up guidance on the implementation of the Act. The Act prohibits sunbed businesses from allowing persons under 18 to use or have access to their sunbeds and includes powers to make further regulations on sunbed use, for example regarding the supervision of sunbed use, the provision of protective eyewear and the provision of information on the health risks.

The Welsh Government has made use of these powers by introducing The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 (Wales) Regulations 2011. The regulations make it an offence for sunbed salons in Wales to be unsupervised or to sell or hire a sunbed to anyone under 18. They also prescribe the health information that is to be displayed and made available to adults who may seek to use a sunbed and prohibit the provision or display of any material relating to health effects of sunbed use, other than material containing the health information prescribed. In addition, they require the provision and wearing of safe and appropriate protective eyewear for adults.

The CIEH would like to see similar regulations introduced in the rest of the UK.

We also worked with the HSE on the revision in 2008 of its guidance note on controlling health risks from the use of UV tanning equipment.

An HSE poster designed to raise awareness of the problems associated with sunbeds can be downloaded here.  

Further information on the risks associated with sunbeds can be downloaded from the Sunsmart website.

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