Lisa Markwell: A good tan isn't worth dying for

We need to get serious about this: sunbeds should be banned altogether

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The beauty salon at the end of my road is advertising sunbed sessions at 60p a go. As I trudge past, in raincoat and sou'wester, it's a tempting prospect. The closest thing any of us will get to the fabled "barbecue summer" is if we fry ourselves under a UV lamp.

But, of course, we won't. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which already classed sunbeds as "probably carcinogenic to humans", has now implicated them as a high cancer risk, on a par with cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos. Asbestos, the scariest substance this side of kryptonite... That's enough to put off anyone hankering after a golden glow without recourse to southern Europe's sunshine.

Sunbeds used to be an essential weapon in the twentysomething's beauty arsenal. Before the advent of fake-tanning lotions, toasting oneself for 20 minutes on a bed – invariably at a dodgily carpeted "salon" that also offered highlights and false nails – was all part of getting ready for the weekend. As a callow (and sallow) youth, I once actually went on a date to a tanning salon.

No one who has lain, dressed only in paper pants and goggles, on cold glass in a construction eerily reminiscent of a coffin, could be under any illusion that it is healthy. It is almost possible to hear the skin crackling as the ultraviolent radiation does its thing. Carcinogenic is a term more often used to describe burnt meat. Exactly...

In recent years, sunbeds have become devalued as women – and no small number of men, for tans have unisex appeal – abandoned them for St Tropez or Fake Bake bronzing creams, applied at home by rubbing or spraying over the body. These had a certain cachet, being more expensive than the new generation of UV fakery, which required one to stand, shivering, in an upright "coffin" for six minutes of super-high intense blasting.

Those left behind to continue using sunbeds – and using these newer machines has been said by experts to contribute to trebling the risk of developing skin cancer – have been children, for whom St Tropez at £17.50 is unaffordable. A "grown-up" tan like their heroines Victoria Beckham or Cheryl Cole for less than a pound is desirable and affordable.

It seems extraordinary that there is currently no legislation in England to prevent under-18s from using them (although Scotland has approved such a ban, after waves of negative publicity around the number of cheapo salons there frequented by school children).

The Department of Health has said in response to the IARC's statement that it may look at introducing new laws to prevent young people from misusing them. May look? Can we please stop talking about this and start doing something? That UV rays cause damage is no real newsflash, but this is serious. Sunbeds should be banned altogether – there's no credible evidence that there are any health benefits to artificial sunshine.

And I can't believe that a wishy-washy "let's get the salon staff to ensure no one stays on too long" policy will work; the profit margins, if any, are too small to encourage abstinence.

Rather like being slim, being tanned as a beauty objective is unlikely to go away anytime soon, so let the switch-flickers in the salons retrain as masseurs, the better to perform streak-free applications of bulk-bought tanning lotions on to those dying to be brown. Anything's better than actually dying, to be brown.

l.markwell@independent.co.uk

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