Are Tanning Beds Safe? Kids Need to Hear that Research Says: No!

Last updated on July 31st, 2018 at 06:20 pm

Sunbeds give out ultraviolet (UV) rays that increase your risk of developing skin cancer (both malignant melanoma and non-melanoma). Many sunbeds give out greater doses of UV rays than the midday tropical sun.

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

teen girls in tanning bedIt’s illegal for people who are under the age of 18 to use sunbeds (in the UK – see end of article for US status*). The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 makes it an offence for someone operating a sunbed business to permit those under 18 to:

  • Use a sunbed at the business premises, including beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels
  • Be offered the use of a sunbed at the business premises
  • Be allowed in an area reserved for sunbed users (unless they’re working as an employee of the business)

The GOV.UK website has further details about the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010.

UV Rays from Sunbeds

Sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths give out the same type of harmful radiation as sunlight. UVA rays make up about 95% of sunlight. They can cause your skin to age prematurely, making it look coarse, leathery and wrinkled. UVB rays make up about 5% of sunlight and burn your skin.

A tan is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of UV rays. Using a sunbed to get a tan isn’t safer than tanning in the sun. It may even be more harmful, depending on factors such as:

  • The strength of UV rays from the sunbed
  • How often you use a sunbed
  • The length of your sunbed sessions
  • Your skin type – for example, whether you have fair or dark skin
  • Your age

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.

Damage from UV Rays

Prolonged exposure to UV rays increases your risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

You can’t always see the damage UV rays cause. The symptoms of skin damage can take up to 20 years to appear.

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

Advice about Using Sunbeds

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued advice on the health risks associated with UV tanning equipment, such as sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths. They recommend you should not use UV tanning equipment if you:

  • Have fair, sensitive skin that burns easily or tans slowly or poorly
  • Have a history of sunburn, particularly in childhood
  • Have lots of freckles and red hair
  • Have lots of moles
  • Are taking medicines or using creams that make your skin sensitive to sunlight
  • Have a medical condition made worse by sunlight, such as vitiligo (a long-term skin condition caused by a lack of a chemical in the skin called melanin)
  • Have had skin cancer or someone in your family has had it
  • Already have badly sun-damaged skin

The HSE advice also includes important points to consider before deciding to use a sunbed. For example, if you decide to use a sunbed, the operator should advise you about your skin type and how long you should limit your session to.

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

Further Information:

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.  We are heading into Spring Break and Prom season – a time when many girls turn to tanning beds. This is information they really need to know.

US status on minors and indoor tanning:
  • In 2014 the FDA issued new regulations for indoor tanning beds including strengthened warnings about the health risks and a strong recommendation that minors under age 18 do not use sunbeds
  • In December, 2015, the FDA proposed a restriction against use of indoor tanning beds by minors
  • 17 states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation banning use of tanning beds by minors – with lesser restrictions existing in several other states
  • Read more about tanning bed health risks and research from the American Academy of Dermatology
  • This New York Times article from last year also provides a good overview of tanning bed issues

About the Author

NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk) is the UK’s biggest health website. It provides a comprehensive health information service to help put you in control of your healthcare.

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