Biology / Genetics / Health / Science

Do sunbeds cause cancer?

I thought this one was beyond doubt by this point, but flicking through my parents’ paper I really did see a headline asking if a woman’s cancer was proof that sunbeds cause cancer. No, really, I swear.

So the facts are that we know that sunbathing in general can cause cancer. All light is radiation, which is why not all radiation is necessarily harmful — but visible light from the sun is a whole spectrum of light which contains ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause damage to cells, and that is just not in debate. And DNA damage can lead to cancer.

Now, whether this particular case of melanoma was caused by the 10 sunbed sessions this particular person had, I don’t know. It’s possible, though she was unlucky to receive that much genetic damage from what sounds like non-habitual tanning. But whether the sunbeds caused the melanoma in this case, it’s undeniable that UV light can cause DNA damage and therefore cancer.

In case you’re interested, UV light causes genetic damage when DNA absorbs a UVB photon. This causes the thymine (T) base pairs to bond together into pyrimidine, and our DNA copying mechanisms can’t copy those base pairs (because it’s only meant to copy thymine, guanine, cytosine and adenine). This can happen anywhere in our DNA, so it may not disrupt anything at all. It could break a regulatory stretch of DNA that prevents another stretch of DNA from being copied over and over, or it could break a protein in such a way that it then damages the cell.

Several of these mutations are needed in the same cell to actually result in cancer, because cells usually have multiple fail-safes. So catching the sun once or twice by accident probably won’t give you cancer: it’s repeated exposure and repeated damage that typically leads to a condition like melanoma being able to develop. It can happen over a very long stretch of time — or, in this case, quite quickly (there’s a possibility she has a genetic risk factor like a mutated tumour suppressing gene that meant it was that much easier for cancer to develop).

So yes: sunbeds (and sunbathing in general) can lead to cancer. This isn’t in doubt, and it’s irresponsible of the Daily Mail or any other source to suggest otherwise. There’s a good reason to wear sun cream and stay out of the sun.

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