Sunbeds should carry a public health warning alerting people to the risks of skin cancer and wrinkles from unnecessary exposure to ultraviolet light, a leading doctor said yesterday.
Dr Margaret Price, a consultant dermatologist and member of the British Medical Association's Dermatology Committee, warned: "There is no such thing as a safe sunbed. They may cause cancer and they definitely age your skin. There isn't a safe limit."
Speaking at a London briefing yesterday to launch the findings of a government survey which showed one in four of 16- to 24-year-olds are sunbed users, Dr Price said there was a misconception that "artificial sun was safe sun".
She condemned the use of sunbeds by health farms and gyms which equated a suntan with health. "I do think there should be a public warning against sunbeds," she added.
The survey, by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys of 2,000 householders in England, Scotland and Wales, found more than one in 10 women and 7 per cent of men had used sunbeds in the past year. Almost one in four of those women exceeded the maximum limit of 20 sessions a year recommended by the British Photodermatology Group. One in 10 users spent more than 30 minutes under the bed.
Dr Andrew Bulman, a Department of Health senior medical officer, said figures for sunbed use were "higher than we would have guessed". He said government policy and National Radiological Protection Board advice was to discourage cosmetic sunbed use. He ruled out legislation to ban sunbeds but, in a letter in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal, he writes: "Whether the information and advice should be altered to be more or less prescriptive is open to debate."
The Health and Safety Executive said yesterday it would shortly be issuing new guidelines to commercial sunbed operators advising them to issue every customer with a leaflet.
Katie Aston of the Health Education Authority, which surveyed sunbathing attitudes, said the appeal of a tan, "whether they get it from the sun, sunbeds, or out of a bottle", was strong. Young people especially believed a tan increased their sex appeal. "Cracking the problem of women's white legs - which both men and women hate" would be a major step forward in changing attitudes, she said. "The notion that pale is interesting is seen as upper-class and irrelevant unless you look like Kate Moss and then it doesn't matter what colour you are."
Most sunbeds use ultraviolet A radiation, thought the safest,but scientists say there is increasing evidence that it poses risks to health, including suppression of the immune system. Repeated exposure to UVA can - in addition to ageing skin, altering texture and pigmentation - activate human viruses.
Dr Price advocated fake tanning lotions for women who could not kick the tanning habit.
Skin cancer is increasing by about 10 per cent a year and there are 40,000 new cases diagnosed annually, most linked to increased sunlight exposure. The most dangerous, malignant melanoma, is increasing by 5 per cent with about 4,000 new cases annually.