Sunburn, tanning and solariums
Skin cells in the epidermis (the top or outer layer of the skin) produce a pigment called melanin, which gives skin its colour and acts to absorb UV radiation before it can damage skin cells. When skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, melanin is produced, and the skin darkens or ‘tans’.
However, a tan is much more than skin turning brown. Even a light tan is a sign that your skin has been exposed to too much UV radiation and that damage has occurred to the cells below.
It’s never too late to protect your skin. Whenever the UV is 3 or above sun protection is recommended. Find out more about how to protect your skin.
Sunburn occurs when the amount of Ultraviolet (UV) radiation your skin is exposed to is more than its ability to protect itself with melanin.
Skin that has been sunburnt turns red within hours – and the sunburn will continue to develop for the next one to three days. Most people who have been sunburnt also peel – which is the body’s way of shedding dead and damaged skin cells and making way for the new skin underneath.
The amount of time it takes to be sunburnt will depend on your skin type (fair skin will burn faster than dark skin), time of day and time of year (UV levels at the time the exposure occurs) and your environment (cement, sand, water and snow are highly reflective). For example, if you are by the pool you are exposed to direct sunlight from the sky as well as the reflected sunlight from the water.
Unfortunately, even though sunburn eventually fades, long term damage to skin cells remains. Even mild sunburn can increase your risk of developing melanoma and the more often you are burnt and the more severe the sunburn is, the higher your risk will be.
Remember, you can get skin damage when UV is 3 or above even if you don’t get sunburnt. You can’t see or feel UV radiation. It is present every day, can be high even if the temperature feels cool and can pass through light cloud cover – use sun protection whenever UV is 3 or above.
Dangers of tanning
A tan is a sign that your skin has been damaged by UV radiation. Even a light tan shows that the skin has increased its production of melanin to protect itself from the effects of too much radiation. And while people with dark skin that tans easily have some natural protection against UV radiation, activities like sunbathing or not using sun protection when UV levels are 3 or above will still damage their skin.
It is a myth that it’s safe to tan if you don’t burn or that a light tan is a sign of good health. There is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan. Read 10 myths about sun protection for more common skin cancer prevention myths.
We have seen great improvements in Australians’ pro-tanning attitudes and behaviours; fewer adolescents and adults desiring and attempting a suntan, and fewer beliefs that a suntan is healthy. Whilst fake tanning products can be safer alternatives to sun-tanning, these products do not protect your skin from UV radiation. Fake tanning is just like dyeing your skin – the change is only on the outside. UV radiation can still reach and damage skin cells, increasing your risk of skin cancer.
Types of fake tan
There are many fake tanning products: lotions, creams, sprays, bronzers, tanning tablets, tanning accelerators, and Melanotan. If you choose to use a fake tan, check it is approved by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) for your safety. Some fake tanning products have not been assessed for quality or safety by the TGA and are therefore illegal to advertise and supply within Australia and pose a health risk to individuals.
Some tanning lotions include a sun protection factor (SPF). This protection only lasts for a short time following application, it does not last for the duration of the fake tan. If a tanning product is promoted as being protective against UV radiation, it may be misleading you. All tanning products should be used in conjunction with the five forms of sun protection.
Solariums (also called solaria, sunbeds or tanning booths) are fitted with light tubes that release concentrated artificial ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation is a type of energy produced naturally by the sun, or artificially in solariums, and can cause skin damage, ageing and wrinkling of the skin, eye damage and skin cancer.
Research has shown that people who use solariums before the age of 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by 59%. The risk of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is twice that of non-users regardless of age. Each year in Australia, over 40 melanoma related deaths and some 2,500 new squamous cell carcinomas are attributed to solarium use.
On 31st December 2014, commercial solariums (also called solaria, sunbeds or tanning booths) were banned in NSW. This means it is now illegal for any business or individual to offer UV tanning services for a fee in NSW, and anyone caught doing so risks significant fines.
NSW was the first state in Australia and only second in the world after Brazil to announce a ban on solariums. As a result of the NSW announcement, solariums are also now banned in all states and territories across Australia.
Cancer Council NSW advocated strongly for a ban on solariums and we would like to acknowledge the many people who supported our advocacy work, especially Mr Jay Allen. Cancer Council also congratulates the NSW government for initiating such strong public health reform across Australia.
Protect your skin by being sun smart