Close up of woman running in park at sunset.
8 December 2011

Sunbeds and vitamin D levels: an exchange

We have agreed in the spirit of open debate to allow the Indoor Tanning Association to state its views on the role of sunbed emissions in stimulating vitamin D production.

In September 2011 we reported that the Press Council did not uphold a complaint from the Indoor Tanning Association of New Zealand (INTANZ) that our article on sunbeds in Consumer 509 inaccurately represented the role sunbed emissions could play in stimulating the production of vitamin D.

We have agreed in the spirit of open debate on this important public issue to allow INTANZ to state its views (these have been slightly abridged and lightly edited). We give our response as well.

INTANZ says: Exposure to sunbeds that emit UVB light provokes vitamin D synthesis in the skin. It is not necessary to get a tan in order to get vitamin D. However, any exposure to such a sunbed will increase vitamin D levels.

We say: Some medical experts are concerned that sunbeds are not effective at stimulating vitamin D. Sunbeds emit high levels of UVA, which could cause melanoma but don’t increase vitamin D levels; and while any exposure to UVB can increase vitamin D levels, these increases through sunbed exposure plateau rapidly and are outweighed by the risks.

INTANZ says: International opinion is divided on how much vitamin D is necessary for health. It is likely that many New Zealanders – especially those with dark skin types – experience vitamin D deficiency during the winter months.

We say: We acknowledge that vitamin D sufficiency is an important health goal, but there’s no reliable evidence to suggest sunbeds are a safe way to increase vitamin D. An expert assessment commissioned by the Commerce Commission this year advised that the majority of the population would get enough vitamin D from incidental exposure to the sun and from their diet.

INTANZ says: INTANZ accepts there are risks involved with sunbed use and actively encourages operators to address the special requirements derived from those risks, including displaying warning notices, restricting services from certain demographic groups, and giving advice on UVR exposure per skin type. However, given the lack of sound scientific research to corroborate the suggested dangers of the activity, we maintain the recommendation to avoid sunbeds is over-zealous and extreme.

We say: The recommendation to avoid sunbeds is not extreme. The Commerce Commission assessment concluded that UVB was carcinogenic and there is increasing evidence UVA used in sunbeds penetrates the skin more deeply and could lead to skin cancer. Other risks of exposure to UV light through sunbed use include photo-ageing of the skin and eye damage.

INTANZ says: Removing the indoor tanning industry will not remove the problem of skin cancer. Discouraging consumers from choosing professional sunbed salons in which to tan will give rise to consumers over-exposing to natural sunlight outdoors and/or abusing UVR exposure in their homes with at-home sunbed equipment. The solution is not to legislate the industry out of existence, but for key players to work together to improve the standard of service in sunbed salons and provide better education for consumers about their total UVR exposure – indoors and out.

We say: New Zealand has the highest incidence of melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) in the world. Each year there are about 2000 new cases of melanoma and over 250 deaths. New Zealand also has high rates of other skin cancers. Almost all these cases are caused by ultraviolet radiation and there is good evidence that exposure to UV radiation in a sunbed significantly increases the risk.

Our surveys since 2005 have shown high levels of sunbed operators not complying with the voluntary standard. Consumer is committed to ensuring sunbed operators are regulated. Regulations are in place in many countries, including Australia, the UK and many other parts of Europe. We are lagging behind.

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