UV in sunbeds is 3–8 times stronger than the midday summer sun. 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.

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)
  • aging 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

People who use sunbeds increase their risk of developing melanoma by 15 %. If you use a sunbed before the age of 35, your risk of developing melanoma is increased by a whopping 75% (IARC Report, International Journal of Cancer, 120. 2006). 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

New Zealand and Australia have the highest skin cancer rates in the world, but both are behind other countries in compulsory regulation of sunbeds. At present, New Zealand and Australia do not require any training for people who work in tanning centres, nor do they require the tanning equipment to be regulated. All the current standards (updated in 2002) for the sunbed industry are voluntary, so operators are not legally required to adhere to them.

This means that, when you use a tanning clinic, you will not know if the equipment is safe or if the operator is trained. France has the strictest regulations – all appliances that emit UV must be declared to the Ministry of Health, claims of health benefits are illegal, all staff must undergo training and use by people younger than 18 is banned.

In 2005 and 2006, the New Zealand Consumers’ Institute carried out undercover surveillance of tanning clinics throughout the country. They found very poor compliance with the voluntary regulations, particularly in restricting access to those younger than 18 years old. The Cancer Society in New Zealand recommends that:

  • artificial tanning is avoided by everyone
  • the public is informed of the risk associated with sunbeds
  • compulsory legislation is implemented to:
  • prohibit use by those under 18 years of age
  • require informed consent
  • requiring adequate training.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone who uses a sunbed increases their risk of skin cancer – there is a 75% 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.

Useful links

The Cancer Society of New Zealand would like to switch off sunbeds - read about the harms of sunbeds in this information sheet from the Cancer Society site.
https://cancernz.org.nz/assets/Sunsmart/Protecting-yourself/How-to-be-sunsmart/IS-SunbedsSunlamps-12Aprl2012.pdf

News item about a young boy burned when using a sunbed.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/south_east/7341450.stm

Editorial from the New Zealand Herald on sunbed legislation.
www.nzherald.co.nz/.../story.cfm?c_id=107&objectid=10487872

    Published 29 July 2008, Updated 1 December 2014