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No Such Thing as a Safe Tan, Researchers Say

Posted: September 22, 2008

There is no such thing as a safe tan, U.S. and British researchers said on Thursday.

They said in their review of published studies that tans and skin cancer both begin with DNA damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet light but many people, especially the young, ignore or are unaware of this danger in a quest for a bronzed body.

"The signals in the cells that induce sun tanning appear to be DNA damage," said Dorothy Bennett, a cell biologist at St. George's, University of London, who wrote one of the papers. "DNA damage is the first step in getting a mutation in cells that could lead to cancer, so there can't be anything like a safe tan."

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 60,000 people each year die from too much ultraviolet light, mostly from malignant melanoma--the deadliest form of skin cancer. The link between skin cancer and damage from ultraviolet light from the sun or tanning booths is well known but the review published in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research suggests that even a little exposure is dangerous.

Another problem is that while genetic and other factors also contribute to skin cancer risk, mixed messages about the safety of ultraviolet light confuses the public, Bennett added in a telephone interview. Getting some sunshine is important because ultraviolet light spurs the body to produce vitamin D. But people need far less ultraviolet exposure for this than it takes to tan, she said. "A lot of young people don't know about the scientific evidence," she said. "Anything that causes mutations in your cells increases your risk of cancer."