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Sunbeds and skin cancer

Sunbeds emit ultraviolet (UV) rays that can increase the risk of developing skin cancer. The risk of developing skin cancer in later life is greater in people who have frequently been exposed to UV rays before the age of 25.[1] 

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies solar radiation and UV tanning devices, such as sunbeds, as human carcinogens (causes of cancer).[2]

Cancer Research UK’s information on sunbeds and cancer says that

Sunbeds give out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that damage your skin and can make it look wrinkled, older or leathery. The UV rays from sunbeds can also damage the DNA in your skin cells, and over time this damage can build up to cause skin cancer.

Sunbeds can sometimes be marketed as a ‘controlled way’ of getting a ‘safer tan’. But actually, sunbeds are no safer than exposure to the sun itself. And using a sunbed before you go on holiday doesn’t protect against further damage from the sun while you’re away. One study found that the average skin cancer risk from sunbeds can be more than double that of spending the same length of time in the Mediterranean midday summer sun.

IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) agrees there is sufficient evidence to show that using sunbeds causes melanomaskin cancer, the most serious form. They also state that sunbeds provide no positive health benefits. Combining the results of studies on sunbeds and cancer shows that using a sunbed increases melanoma risk by 16-20%.[3]

The NHS offers guidance, Are Sunbeds Safe? last reviewed in June 2018. This points out that UV skin damage may be worsened by 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[4]

and links to Health and Safety Executive advice on UV tanning equipment.

On 21 June 2017, the World Health Organisation issued a publication Artificial tanning devices: public health interventions to manage sunbeds to assist in the development of public health interventions in relation to the use and management of sunbeds, summarised in a press release, “More can be done to restrict sunbeds to prevent increasing rates of skin cancer”. The report attributes the rise in the incidence of skin cancers to the relatively recent rise in the use of cosmetic tanning devices and outlines regulatory measures which have been used worldwide. It aims to assist policy-makers who are considering options to manage the health risks of sunbeds.

The Sunbed Association, the industry body for tanning providers, disputes the link between sunbed use and melanoma.[5]

[1]     NHS, Are sunbeds safe?, reviewed 14 June 2018

[2]     IARC, Sunbeds and UV Radiation, July 2009

[3]     Cancer Research UK, sunbeds and cancer, last reviewed July 2017

[4]     NHS, Are sunbeds safe?, reviewed 14 June 2018

[5]     The Sunbed Association, Melanoma, [accessed 12 February 2019]

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