Random Thoughts – Randocity!

WHO ups ante: Sunbeds now classified as bad as ‘tobacco’ for cancer risk.

Posted in tanning by commorancy on July 29, 2009

A new study conducted with mice that the WHO has latched onto and  that I’ve yet to read, now classifies sunbeds specifically and all UV exposure at the highest risk of causing skin cancer (on par with Tobacco).  I’m not sure what prompted this change in view, other than a single study, but they have made this change.  Clearly, one study is not enough to make this determination, but that is exactly what the World Health Organization is doing.  There must be some subtext here that’s prompting this change.  Perhaps the sunscreen industry is losing more money to people choosing to tan rather than buy and slather on the sunscreen.

The WHO claims that “It has been estimated that a sunbed tan offers the same protective effect as using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of only 2-3.”  I’d guess that most lighter skinned people can only produce a tan (in a sunbed or outdoors) that protects you 2-3 times the amount you normally could stay outside.  Without a tan, if you can stay out 1 hour without burning/tanning, then with a tan you can stay outside 2-3 hours without burning or substantially tanning.  That’s fairly significant.  The WHO shrugs it off as miniscule.  Compared to SPF 50,  it is miniscule.  But realize, that even at 15 minutes max time outdoors without sunscreen, there aren’t 12.5 hours of sunlight in a day when using SPF 50. So, SPF 50 is overkill for most people.  I’d also venture to guess that the WHO’s SPF 2-3 tan protection estimation is on the low side.  Yes, if you only tan once a week in a bed and get only a very light tan, that might only make an SPF of 2-3.  But, if you get a darker tan, then it will be a lot more protective perhaps up to 4-6 depending on color.  Of course, how much melanin you can produce will also dictate how strong your protection is.  Note that all skin colors will eventually burn, even the darkest tones.  The question is, how long does it take?

The WHO’s SPF arguments completely discount the fact that a tan is full spectrum UV protection and, instead, suggests reliance on the sunscreens to protect you.  What is this nonsense?  Sunscreens are nowhere near full spectrum protection.  In fact, most suncreens only really protect you from UVB and many provide limited or non-existent protection to UVA.  Many UVA blocking chemicals wear off or degrade far faster than UVB protection.  So, even while you may not burn with the UVB protection, your UVA protection may have worn off 10 minutes ago.  A tan is visible, you can see it.  Sunscreen is invisible, you can’t see it.  A tan that you can see, you know is working.  A sunscreen that you can’t see, you can’t know that it’s working.  So, you have to reapply at least every 30 minutes to 1 hours to ensure constant protection.

For SPF, consider this.  There are 8-10 major sunlit hours in the day.  If you have an SPF of 3 and can stay out 1 hour without burning, that means you can stay out 3 hours without burning with SPF 3 protection.   How often do people stay outdoors longer than 3 hours in direct sunlight?  Of the places that come to mind, I see an amusement park, a waterpark or perhaps at the beach surfing.  These three  situations can easily kill more than 4 hours outdoors.  So, in these instances, you wouldn’t want to rely on a tan alone to protect you even if you had an extremely dark tan.  But, of the three, two are water activities where sunscreens don’t really work well.  So, with outdoor water activities, having a tan is far more helpful than using sunscreens that continually wash off.

Benefits outweigh Risks

William B. Grant (Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC), San Francisco, CA, USA) suggests in his December 2008 article that the benefits of UV exposure outweigh any risks that UV might impose.  For example, he states,

“Humanity’s relation to solar UVB and vitamin D should first be put into the biological perspective. Solar UVB has always been the primary source of vitamin D for life on Earth. On the other hand, UV can damage DNA and generate free radicals, as well as destroy folate in the skin. As a result, skin pigmentation adapted to prevailing solar UV doses where people lived for many generations: very dark in equatorial plains regions, brown in tropical forests and subtropical locations, and very light in high-latitude European locations (Jablonski and Chaplin, 2000). Many people now may live where their skin is too light for prevailing UV doses, resulting in increased risk of skin cancer, or too dark, leading to vitamin D deficiencies.”

Assuming that UV and skin cancer are linked conclusively, his argument suggests another reason for higher incidence of skin cancer.  Because the world is literally an open travel destination, peoples from all over the world are now moving to regions they would not normally inhabit.  Thus, lighter skinned people are moving to regions with more UV exposure than normal for their protection level. Darker skinned people are becoming vitamin D deficient because UV isn’t strong enough when they move to less sunny areas.

Of UV exposure, Mr. Grant also writes,

“The benefits of UVB irradiance and vitamin D extend well beyond cancer. There is mounting evidence that vitamin D also reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases (Dobnig et al., 2008). The benefits for UVB irradiance accrue even in youth, as reported for bone development (Lamberg-Allardt and Viljakainen, 2008), multiple sclerosis (Grant, 2008van der Mei et al., 2003), breast cancer (John et al., 2007b), and prostate cancer (John et al., 2007a). One reason for an early-life benefit is that vitamin D increases absorption of calcium, which reduces the risk of cancer (Lappe et al., 2007Peterlik and Cross, 2005).”

On the one hand, you have the WHO claiming ‘tanning beds’ are the highest risk for cancer (especially for those under 30) and on the other you have the benefits of vitamin D (especially during early years) that help reduce your chances of cancer and aid in health.  These statements are very opposing.  In fact, evidence suggests that UV exposure also aids in the reduction of other illnesses.   Of the benefits of Vitamin D, Mr Grant again states,

“Also, vitamin D strengthens the innate immune system against both bacterial and viral infections through the production of human cathelicidin, LL-37 (Aloia and Li-Ng, 2007Hewison, 2008), thereby reducing the risk of viral infections such as Epstein–Barr virus that lead to other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and several types of cancer (Grant, 2008).”

And he states that 1000-2000 IU of Vitamin D per day can aid in the reduction of  other diseases and of contracting viruses including “… seasonal influenza and the common cold (Aloia and Li-Ng, 2007).”  I can attest to that.  UV exposure has kept me from getting the flu or a cold for the last two years running.


Humans have enjoyed sunlight since the beginning.  To now claim that natural sunlight is more dangerous than a chemical bath in sunscreen products is basically ridiculous.  Let’s actually do some studies to determine if sunscreen chemicals are truly long-term safe, shall we?  I digress.  If sunlight were truly as carcinogenic as the WHO puts forth in their very alarmist announcement, then humans would not exist today and we would have been one big heap of skin cancer.  Yet, that hasn’t happened.  So, then the question becomes, what has changed?  What are we now doing that we weren’t doing years ago?  I think the answer is in the all of the manmade products and foods that we consume.  The unnaturalness of working in closed indoor spaces instead of being outdoors.   Of course, this includes Mr. Grant’s argument of inhabiting regions with higher doses of UV.  So, when we do go outdoors to play, we get badly burned and we effectively have no protection.

Other sources of UV

There are other incidental sources of UV that you may also not be aware.  If you work in an office building or perhaps even in your home, fluorescent bulbs have become extremely common place.  While the UV that emanates from these bulbs is not as strong as those in tanning beds, they still give off UV.  Haven’t you ever wondered why plants love to be under fluorescent lights?  That’s the answer.. UV.  So, while there isn’t enough UV exposure from these fluorescents to actually tan you, there is enough exposure throughout an 8 hour day to account for higher incidence of skin cancer in individuals.  These fluorescent lamps may even be in your home in the new ‘energy saver’ bulbs.  So, you may also be further exposing yourself to additional UV without even knowing it.

WHO warns only targeted UV sources

If the WHO wants to exclaim warnings, they need to exclaim them in the proper places.  Right now, they are unfairly targeting tanning beds and tanning salons when natural sunlight falls directly under their warning.  They make no mention of UV from office building flourescent bulbs.  Awardspace.com describes standard fluorescent lamps:

“Fluorescent lamps illuminate 71% of the commercial space in the United States. Most fluorescent lighting gives off UV radiation. Inside the tube, fluorescent lights are pure ultraviolet (UV). Passing through the coating of the tube, they change to  visible light (spikes of violet, green and blue) and are not “supposed” to give off UV radiation, but some leaks out.  There are special filters that can be purchased to block UV light, but most businesses don’t install the filters because of cost.  The filter is a panel that allows light through, but blocks the UV radiation. [Sewell]”

Note that UV exposure is cumulative.  So, sitting under fluorescent lights every day for 8-10 hours is probably equivalent to being out in the sun for several hours.  Note that what’s blocked appears to be mainly UVB or else everyone would go home sunburned every day.  So, what’s left that comes out of the bulbs is likely the longer UVA waves.  These are the UV sources that account for skin aging and sun damage and potentially skin cancer.

William B. Grant quotes from the WHO’s very own web site:

“Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure is a minor contributor to the world’s disease burden, causing an estimated annual loss of 1.6 million (disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs)); i.e. 0.1% of the total global disease burden. A markedly larger annual disease burden, 3.3 billion DALYs, might result from reduction in global UVR exposure to very low levels.” –WHO Review via William B. Grant

Let”s read that again… diseases from UVR exposure (i.e., skin cancer) account for 0.1% of the total global disease burden! Yet, from the WHO’s announcement, they would have you think that it’s nearly all of the world’s disease burden.  The bottom line is, even if the WHO could manage to get every tanning salon in the world closed, the incidence of skin cancer would not likely drop as dramatically as they would think.  First, sunlight is still readily available.  Second, there are plenty of other unexpected UV sources (like office lighting) that go unchecked.  But, even the WHO cautioned that reducing UVR exposure to very low levels might result in a ‘markedly larger annual disease burden’ (due to the lack of vitamin D).  So, the timing of this increase in the risk levels is odd and must have some other subtext that’s pushing it through.  One thing is quite clear, this warning clearly targets tanning beds and tanning salons.  Because this notice clearly intends to target tanning salons and tanning beds, the question then remains as to the motivation behind this announcement at this time.

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