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  • UV in sunbeds is 3–8 times stronger than the midday summer sunlight. Anyone who uses a sunbed increases their risk of skin cancer.

    How do sunbeds work?

    Sunbeds (and tanning booths and tanning beds) emit UV radiation and are used to produce a cosmetic tan. They use fluorescent lamps that have phosphor blends designed to emit UV in a spectrum somewhat similar to the Sun.

    Rights: The University of Waikato

    Sunbed research

    Dr Richard McKenzie, Senior Research Scientist at NIWA, Lauder, has recently started to examine the spectrum of UV emitted by sunbed lamps. Here, he reports on an early result.

    Generally, they emit mostly UVA. However, in recent years they have been manufactured to produce a concentration of higher levels of UVB to mimic the Sun’s UV spectrum and higher levels of UV radiation intensity to speed up the tanning process.

    Why are sunbeds a problem?

    Research has shown that the concentration of UV in sunbeds is 3–8 times stronger than the midday summer Sun. UV radiation is the most prominent and universal cancer-causing agent in our environment. The effects of excessive UV radiation include:

    • increased risk of skin cancer (including melanoma)
    • ageing of the skin
    • damage to the eyes (such as cataracts)
    • suppression of your immune system
    • little, if any, protection against Sun damage in subsequent sun exposure.

    The evidence of health risk linked to sunbed use continues to grow.

    Nature of science

    A role for scientists is to provide people with information and evidence about issues so that they can make informed choices. In this situation, scientists are providing a lot of evidence about the dangers of sunbeds.

    No sunbed can give a safe tan

    The World Health Organization reports that people who use sunbeds – even once – have a 20% higher risk of developing melanoma compared to people who have never used one. If you use a sunbed before the age of 35, the risk increases by 59%!

    If you keep using sunbeds, not only will you be increasing your risk of melanoma, your skin will also age more quickly and you will develop wrinkles, freckles and moles. Sunbeds should not be used to increase vitamin D levels.

    Regulation of sunbeds

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Sunburned leg

    A badly sunburned leg after being exposed to the sun for three hours.

    New Zealand and Australia have some of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Australia banned commercial sunbed operations in 2015. As of 2017, it is illegal for sunbed operators in New Zealand to allow people under the age of 18 to use a sunbed. Those who do not comply with the law face a fine of up to $2,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a company.

    The Ministry of Health set an industry standard for sunbed operators (AS/NZ 2635:2008 Solaria for cosmetic purposes) but it is voluntary. New Zealand does not require training for people who work with sunbeds, nor is the equipment regulated. As a result, people using commercially operated sunbeds have no way of knowing if the equipment is safe, nor do they know if it is being operated safely.

    After concern about poor compliance with the voluntary standard, the Ministry of Health requested that staff from Public Health Units visit commercial operations every 6 months. These visits and visits by Consumer New Zealand highlight continuing instances of non-compliance within the industry.

    Who is most at risk?

    Anyone who uses a sunbed increases their risk of skin cancer – there is an increased risk for melanoma if the user is younger than 35. Those who have the very highest risk are people who:

    • have fair skin
    • are less than 18 years of age
    • tend to freckle or have moles
    • frequently had sunburn as a child
    • have skin that is already sun damaged
    • are wearing cosmetics, because these can increase sensitivity to UV exposure
    • are taking medication.
    Rights: The University of Waikato

    Reducing the risks

    Dr Elizabeth Baird, specialist dermatologist at Remuera Dermatology, discusses ways in which you can reduce your risk of developing melanoma. The risks of sunbeds are highlighted.

    Related content

    These resources provide more information about UV and skin cancer:

    UV beads are an engaging way to learn about UV and Sun safety. Check out these activities:

      Published 29 July 2008, Updated 26 February 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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