How we all need to kick tanning addiction

‘Being brown was being me,’ she says. ‘If I wasn't tanned, then I didn't look like "me". Silly I know, but that's just the way I felt. Having a tan made me feel better about myself. I used to say it was like a "tonic" – it made me feel more confident and more healthy. In reality, my overwhelming desire to be tanned couldn't have been more unhealthy.’

The reasons for Laura feeling this way are complex: for much of the 20th century, a tan has been regarded as a sign of beauty, of health and even of success (it showed that one could spend time in the sun). But there are also biological factors. Tanning can trigger the release of serotonin, which generates feelings of wellbeing and happiness. What we usually cannot feel, however – unless we suffer sunburn – is the damage being done to the skin.

Even when this long-term damage started to show itself, Laura was not deterred. ‘I actually stopped using sunbeds about 12 years ago,’ she says. ‘I could see the wrinkles increasing. Not once though did it ever enter my head that I could be affected by skin cancer, let alone the deadliest type, malignant melanoma.’

Malignant melanoma was diagnosed a year ago, in February 2014, following the investigation of a raised red spot that she initially thought was simply an insect bite. The melanoma was removed, but the cancer had already spread, and lymph nodes in her groin also had to be removed. She beat the cancer, but now wears factor 50 sunblock and sits in the shade, accepting of her paler complexion and happy to be alive.

As a society we have all been ‘addicted’ to tanning, and reducing skin cancer risk means going against decades of social convention – but the preventative measures are at least easier to apply than with other cancers. Minimise sun and UV exposure, and use high factor sunblock when it is unavoidable – especially if in a higher risk group (eg if you have fairer skin and hair).

There are other measures that are gaining ground. According to Laura, her skin tone was a standing joke with her colleagues in the office. These days, however, we are increasingly looking to the workplace for preventative health measures – including screenings for cancers not covered by the NHS (there is no national screening programme for skin cancer). In a HSUK survey of UK HR directors and managers carried out in January 2015, 95% gave their backing to the need for regular cancer checks for all employees.

This is the area in which HSUK works, providing education and corporate in-house screenings. Had such provision been on offer in Laura’s workplace, she may even have been persuaded to kick her habit before it became a serious issue. It remains to be seen, however, whether we are entering a phase in which tanned skin is no longer seen as a sign of health.