A sunbed is a mechanical tanning booth that emits ultraviolet (UV) rays to make the body tan. Some people use sunbeds every now and then to get a quick and easy tan before a special occasion or holiday. Others may use them on a regular basis to maintain a more tanned look.
While sunbed use has become a popular method for achieving a natural looking, deep golden tan, unfortunately it can be risky. For novices, young people and individuals with fair skin, using a sunbed can be particularly dangerous. Although there are regulations in place to govern the use and availability of sunbeds - as well as the strength of UV light emitted - there are some people who use them without considering the risks.
On this page we will explore the importance of sunbed safety - looking into the risks involved and the current laws which regulate sunbed use. We will also provide some safe tanning tips to ensure you reduce chances of skin damage.
On this page
How do sunbeds work?
The ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB radiation emitted by sunbeds causes skin to tan because they stimulate the production of the skin pigment, melanin. Melanin is produced in cells called melanocytes and is responsible for determining the colour of a person's skin and hair. The melanin levels in each person will vary depending on how much their ancestry has been exposed to the sun. This is because UV exposure stimulates the division of melanocytes, which creates more melanin. Melanin browns as it rises to the skin's surface and thus results in a tan.
The rate at which each individual burns or tans depends on their skin type. Skin experts have classified skin types into six groups - ranging from porcelain white skin (type one) through to natural black skin (type six). The darker your skin, the more melanin you have. This means you are better protected from UV rays.
A sunbed works by emitting UVA or UVB rays to speed up the production of melanin in our skin, causing it to darken more rapidly than a natural tan. This is because the skin is working harder to protect itself from the high dosage of ultraviolet light. UVB rays make up about 5% of sunlight, but most modern machines produce very high levels of this light to achieve a quick and easy tan. It is a legal requirement for all sunbed users to wear goggles to provide sufficient eye protection from the UV rays.
Spray tan or sunbed?
Generally we would recommend having a spray tan to get a natural looking tan rather than using a sunbed due to the risks involved. However, it is possible to use a sunbed safely if it is in a responsible manner in a controlled environment.
Sunbed use is usually divided into sessions. A session refers to the length of time needed to reach your MED (minimal erythemal dose). This is the point before your skin type reaches over-exposure and burning. A session depends on the following factors:
- The type of sunbed being used.
- Your individual skin type.
- The development point of your tan.
Sunbed use for your skin type
If you have very fair, sensitive skin you are likely to have a high risk of burning when exposed to UV light. Due to this, it is recommended that you do not use sunbeds.
If you have fair to light brown skin your risk of burning is a little less. You have the potential to build a moderate tan when exposed to sunlight. As a result sunbed use is not as dangerous as it is for those with type one skin. It is recommended that people with fair to light brown skin keep their session times to around six to nine minutes.
For those with light brown skin, dark hair and eyes, burning when exposed to UV light is going to be considerably less. You will tan deeply and quite quickly. Your sessions can last a little longer; around nine to 12 minutes.
For those with deep brown skin, dark hair and eyes, burning is very rare as this type of skin has natural protection. Sessions can last around 12-15 minutes.
If you are using a sunbed for the first time, regardless of your skin type you should only use it for the minimum session time. Unbeknown to you, your skin may be hypersensitive to light and you may find a booth claustrophobic.
Some salons may allow their clients to have longer sessions. All sunbeds are different which means UV output can vary considerably. Salon staff should be trained to advise on the appropriate session time for your skin type and stage of tan development. This will take into account the type of sunbed being used.
A new regulation makes it a requirement for all sunbeds to have a maximum UV output of 0.3W/m2. This means session times may need to be increased for individuals of certain skin types to achieve the same tanning effects.
Using sunbed tanning lotion
Sunbed tanning lotion is a key part of the tanning process. Using a quality tanning lotion will help you to achieve a deep tan much more quickly - which will minimise the length of sessions you require.
Sunbed tanning lotions are specially designed to speed up the skin's production of melanin. They are also highly moisturising, which helps to prevent dry skin and promotes the longevity of your tan. Most good quality sunbed tanning lotions will also contain Vitamin E, which is known for its anti-ageing benefits. If you are looking to buy a tanning lotion, make sure you choose a product that is designed especially for indoor use and not for outdoor sun exposure.
Sunbed safety guidelines
As aforementioned, understanding your own personal risk factors are key for sunbed safety. However these extend beyond awareness of your skin type and length of sessions. Age and medical conditions also need to be considered.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued advice on the health risks associated with using tanning equipment. It recommends that you should not commit to sunbed use if you:
- Have a history of sunburn - particularly in childhood.
- Are using creams or taking medicines that make you more sensitive to light.
- Have lots of moles.
- Have a medical condition that's made worse by sunlight (such as vitiligo).
- Have had skin cancer or someone in your family has had it.
- Already have badly sun-damaged skin.
- Have lots of freckles and/or red hair.
- Have fair, sensitive skin that burns easily or tans poorly.
Pregnant women are also advised to avoid using sunbeds as skin can be more sensitive while carrying a child so it is more likely to burn.
It is also recommended that you speak to your GP before using tanning equipment if you have any of the following:
- frequent headaches or migraines
- heart problems
- high blood pressure
- suffer from allergies.
What are the risks?
Sunbed use is a controlled method of exposing yourself to UV rays in order to tan. This can help to prevent over-exposure and sunburn from natural UV rays. However, there is some evidence to suggest that frequent use of a sunbed can increase your risk of skin problems (such as premature ageing), and could lead to cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world. There are two types - non-melanoma and malignant melanoma. Both are thought to be caused by overexposure to UV light.
Non-melanoma is the less severe of the two, and refers to a group of cancers that develop in the upper layers of the skin. More than 100,000 people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer every year in the UK. Treatment tends to involve surgery, and is usually successful.
Malignant melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. There are around 13,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK. Malignant melanoma occurs when melanocytes begin to develop abnormally. It is usually identified by the appearance of an irregular looking mole that is itchy and multicoloured. The danger of this cancer is that it can spread quickly around the body, so early diagnosis and treatment is essential.
Common factors that can make some people more vulnerable to skin cancer when using a sunbed include:
- how often a sunbed is used
- how strong the UV rays are
- the length of sunbed sessions
- skin type
In April 2011, The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 came into force in England and Wales and this restricts the use of sunbeds to over 18s only. Evidence has shown that under-25s who frequently use sunbeds are at high risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Following a number of campaigns, MPs passed the legislation to make it illegal for anyone under 18 to use sunbed facilities.
Overall, the legislation makes it an offence for someone operating a sunbed business to allow those under the age of 18 to:
- Use a sunbed at the business premises, including beauty salons, gyms, leisure centres and hotels.
- Be offered the use of a sunbed at the business premises.
- Be allowed in an area that is reserved for sunbed users (unless they are working as an employee).
Failure to conform to these regulations will result in legal action and fines of up to £20,000.
More information can be found at legislation.gov.uk.
Safe tanning tips
Sunbed use can be a safe and controlled way to get a tan without over-exposing yourself to UV rays. It can provide a healthy dose of Vitamin D and prevent the possibility of burning. However, no form of sunlight exposure is completely risk-free. Even in the UK - where the sun is considerably less strong than other parts of the world - sunburn and skin cancer is still possible.
If you are planning some time in the sun this year - either outside in your back garden or on a beach somewhere abroad - we recommend the following tanning tips to ensure are taking all the precautions necessary to get a bronzed glow without risking your health.
It is a myth that you won't tan while wearing suncream. Sun protection factor (SPF) extends the time you can spend in the sun without suffering additional skin damage. The higher the SPF; the better your protection. Make sure you choose a product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays and if you have fair skin, reapply regularly - especially after contact with water.
To avoid over-exposing your skin to UV rays and risking severe sunburn, spread out the time you spend in the sun over a couple of days, rather than spending one whole day sunbathing.
Protect your eyes
The skin around your eyes is very sensitive and more vulnerable to UV rays, so make sure you invest in a good quality pair of sunglasses with UV protection before spending time in the sun.
Carefully monitor your skin
If you enjoy spending time in the sun, be careful to check your skin regularly for signs of any abnormal moles or freckles that may be itchy or unusual in colour and size. If you spot anything of concern, make an appointment with your GP straight away and they will be able to refer you to a specialist.