Are sunbeds safe?

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 Mediterranean sun.

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

  • people who are frequently exposed to UV rays before 25 years of age 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

It’s illegal for people who are under 18 years of age to use sunbeds. The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 makes it an offence for someone operating a sunbed business to permit those under 18 from:

  • using a sunbed at the business premises, including beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels
  • being offered the use of a sunbed at the business premises
  • being allowed in an area that's 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% and cause your skin to burn.

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

Currently, there is no regulation that governs the type or strength of UV rays that sunbeds give out.

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 that 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) has issued advice on the health risks associated with UV tanning equipment, such as sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths. They recommend that 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/or red hair
  • have lots of moles
  • are taking medicines or using creams that make your skin sensitive to sunlight
  • have a medical condition that’s 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’s guidance on the use of UV tanning equipment (PDF, 102KB).

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 13/06/2013

Next review due: 12/06/2015