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  • Health & Medicine

Sunbeds update: experts call for tighter regulation

by Ed Yong | Analysis

19 June 2009

1 comment 1 comment

Commerical sunbed use can increase the risk of melanoma, without providing any health benefits.

Commerical sunbed use can increase the risk of melanoma, and doesn't provide any health benefits.

Last year, we blogged about the link between sunbeds and skin cancer, and discussed some of the regulations that we’d like to see to encourage people to make informed choices about their risk.

These included

  • restricting the use of sunbeds to over 18s,
  • providing information on risks to users and
  • ensuring that all use is supervised by trained staff.

These measures have already been introduced in Scotland. In exciting news, they’re now being recommended for the rest of the UK too by COMARE – the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment.

The COMARE report

COMARE is an independent group of scientific and medical experts who advise the Government on the health effects of radiation sources, be they natural (like the sun) or man-made (like sunbeds). Their recommendations carry a lot of weight and this week, they’ve published their opinions on sunbeds following an exhaustive review of the current evidence.

Their recommendations mirror those we’ve been calling for over the past few years.

  • They recognise “a need to regulate the commercial use of sunbeds”.
  • Commercial use of sunbeds by under-18s should be banned, bringing sunbed use “in line with the sale of a number of other age-restricted goods, eg tobacco and alcohol.”
  • Unsupervised use of sunbeds or self-operated types should be banned
  • All commercial outlets should be licensed and registered
  • Outlets should provide protective eyewear for all users, which should be compulsory
  • Users should be given information on the risks of sunbeds and outlets should get their informed consent. They should discourage the use of sunbeds by people from “at-risk groups”.
  • Outlets should be prohibited from “using information promoting unproven and/or net health benefits of sunbed use”.

Risks and benefits

The last recommendations are perhaps the most important. We’ve said before that we’re not calling for a ban on sunbeds, and that adults should have the freedom to make their own choices. However, these choices should be informed ones, based on a full understanding of the relevant risks. Talking about supposed benefits of sunbed use skews that understanding.

Let’s be clear – the health risks of sunbed use include a higher risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, premature ageing of the skin, a higher risk of cataracts, and other side effects including sunburn and rashes.

On the supposed “benefits”, the COMARE report is very clear:

“The health risks associated with sunbed use far outweigh the perceived benefits, the majority of which are psychological and cosmetic.”

Contrary to common belief, tanning on a sunbed won’t protect you against later sunburn. At most, it provides the equivalent of a factor 3 sunscreen.

Nor are sunbeds a good way of getting enough vitamin D. One study found that they can slightly increase vitamin D levels – but this boost flattens off after a few sessions. Even worse, people pay a heavy price for that extra vitamin D – up to two in three sessions led to side effects including sunburn and rashes.

Vitamin D is obviously very important. But you can get enough through casual exposures to the sun, below the level that causes the skin to redden or burn. Diet and supplements provide other options. As COMARE say:

“The practice of using sunbeds to synthesise vitamin D is not recommended due to the cancer risk and high frequency of side effects.

The report also notes that the groups of people who are most likely to benefit from an extra boost of vitamin D are those who are least likely to use sunbeds. These include the elderly, housebound people, dark-skinned ethnic minorities, and those who wear whole-body coverings.

In contrast, certain groups of people have naturally high risks of skin cancer and should never use a sunbed. These include people with fair skin that burns easily, red or fair hair, lots of moles or freckles, a family history of skin cancer, or a history of sunburns.

Why the fuss?

It is worth noting that our messages, and those of COMARE and other organisations, don’t portray sunbeds as being a greater health risk than overexposure to the sun. However, they’re clearly not a safer alternative.

Sunbeds emit small amounts of UVB, which causes sunburn and melanoma. They also emit large doses of UVA, which has also been linked to skin cancer. Indeed, one survey found that sunbeds can emit up to 10-15 times as much UVA as the midday sun – levels that are far higher than people would normally experience through sunbathing or daily life.

Furthermore, people who use sunbeds typically also sunbathe, so the risks associated with sunbed use often don’t substitute for those linked to sun exposure – they add to them.

Sunbeds are also becoming more common. We know that the number of commercial sunbed outlets in the UK is on the rise. We also know that they are often used by children and teenagers. For example, in 2007, a survey of 500 pupils aged 14-16 in Merseryside found that 43 per cent had used sunbeds.

So , in summary – sunbeds are being used more and more, they can increase the risk of cancer (among other conditions), and they have no health benefits beyond very rare uses in medical settings. In the light of these facts, COMARE’s strong recommendations are most welcome.



  • Jessica
    20 March 2010

    Thank you so much for this posting. It is really enlightening and will help me tremendously with my Social Marketing Plan Assignment for university. More people should be made more aware of the dangers of sunbeds.


  • Jessica
    20 March 2010

    Thank you so much for this posting. It is really enlightening and will help me tremendously with my Social Marketing Plan Assignment for university. More people should be made more aware of the dangers of sunbeds.