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Research Calls Into Question Even So-Called “Safe” Tanning Devices

April 7, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Newer skin tanning devices that emit ultraviolet type-A radiation are less likely to produce a bad sunburn than older machines, but scientists said Monday that cell culture tests indicate so-called ″safe″ tanning also may have adverse long-term effects.

Researchers for the Food and Drug Administration said studies with cultured mouse cells show for the first time that ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation can cause mutations, indicating potential cancer-causing effects.

Dr. C. David Lytle told an FDA seminar that the study also reaffirmed previous data showing that UVA radiation from tanning devices can have other destructive effects on cells which might lead to such problems as premature skin aging.

″UVA lamps may be a problem and people should be aware of it,″ Lytle said.

Older tanning booths, beds and other devices emitted ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation to provide a quick tan, but they fell out of favor with reports of increased skin cancer risks and other problems.

Since 1981, tanning proponents in this country have been switching to UVA devices and promoting their use for ″safe tanning,″ officials said. About 97 percent of the ultraviolet radiation from sunlight is the A variety and the remainder the stronger B type.

People tan because ultraviolet radiation in sunlight increases the levels of a dark pigment called melanin in the skin in an attempt to protect the body against too much sun.

Because UVA is less efficient at tanning than UVB, users need a higher intensity dose and longer exposures to get the same effects, Lytle said. These could be major factors in potential problems with UVA radiation, he added.

In studies conducted by Dr. Victoria Hitchins and other scientists at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, mouse cells were exposed to levels of UVA radiation comparable to those emitted by standard commercial tanning devices.

The researchers found a three-to-four-fold increase in cell mutation in the exposed cells, an indication of cancer-causing potential, Lytle said.

UVA devices have been advertised as ″safer than the sun″ because they cause less obvious sunburns than UVB types if used properly. This claim is dubious because the long-term effects of UVA radiation are unknown, but may be serious, Lytle said.

Since UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB, it is unclear whether the deeper tans they cause are as protective as surface suntans, he said. And since UVA radiation also causes breaks in microscopic blood vessels, added adverse effects to the skin may be found later, he continued.

Lytle said people who are extremely sensitive to sunlight, who have such eye problems as cataracts and those prone to cold sores should not use UVA devices. UVA radiation is known to cause cataracts as well as immune system suppression, which can cause outbreaks of the herpes viruses responsible for cold sores.

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