Are sunbeds safe?

Sunbeds are not safe – here’s why…

Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to lying outside in the sun – both are bad for the skin. Skin under a sunbed will still be exposed to harmful UV rays. Health risks linked to sunbeds and other UV tanning equipment include:

  • skin cancer
  • premature ageing of skin
  • sunburnt skin
  • dryness and itching
  • bumpy rashes
  • eye irritation
  • cataracts

Using sunbeds before the age of 35 increases your risk of skin cancer by up to 75%.  Sunbeds also accelerate the skin’s natural ageing process.

Our message is simple – DO NOT USE SUNBEDS or other UV tanning equipment.

And it’s an absolute no-no if any of the following apply to you:

  • you have been sunburnt in the past, particularly in childhood
  • you have fair skin that burns easily
  • you have a large number of freckles or red hair
  • you have a large number of moles
  • you’re taking medication that makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight
  • anyone in your family has had skin cancer in the past
  • It is now illegal for people under 18 years old to use sunbeds, including in tanning salons, beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels. Find out more in Are sunbeds safe?

What is it about sunbeds that make them unsafe?

The reason why the sun causes skin cancer is because it has something called UV rays which can change things in your skin.   And sunbeds use UV rays too – actually most sunbeds give out greater doses of UV rays than the midday tropical sun.  So sunbeds or using tanning booths do increase your risk of skin cancer in the same way as lying half-naked in the sun does.  Actually, studies have shown that sunbed use can make you much more likely to get all types of skin cancer.  A research paper in the International Journal of Cancer in March 2007 reviewed 19 published studies on the association of tanning beds and skin cancers. They found use of the tanning beds before age 35 boosted the risk of the serious skin cancer called a melanoma by 75%.  Now that’s a lot – don’t you think?

Tanning also causes premature ageing of the skin. Whether the exposure is indoors (sunbeds) or outdoors (the natural sun), ultraviolet exposure over time causes what doctors call “photo-aging,” or in simple terms – wrinkles, brown spots and a leathery look.

And finally….UV rays can also damage your eyes, causing problems such as irritation, conjunctivitis or cataracts, particularly if you don’t wear goggles.

The risks are greater for young people. Evidence shows that:

  • people who are frequently exposed to UV rays before the age of 25 are at greater risk of developing skin cancer later in life
  • sunburn in childhood can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life

Now here’s an interesting fact.  In 2006, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products concluded the maximum ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from sunbeds should not exceed 0.3W/m2, or 11 standard erythema doses per hour (erythema means reddening of the skin caused by sunburn). These 11 standard doses are the same as exposure to the tropical sun, which the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as extreme.

But I want a tan!

  •   A tan is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of UV rays. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is the skin’s response to the damaging rays and is therefore an indicator of UV damage.
  • If you are desperate for a tan, consider a fake tan from a bottle. They are very good these days. Some fake tans are bronzers that simply stain the skin and can be washed off. Other products contain a chemical that reacts with the skin to give a tanned colour. The long-term effects of these chemicals are not yet known. However, they seem to be safer than tanning in the sun or under a sunbed.
  • A fake tan is not a sunscreen, and, if you plan to go out in the sun, you will need to apply one.

Further Reading

Read more about the HSE guidance on the use of UV tanning equipment (PDF, 102kb).