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Sunbeds - The Facts

What are they?

An increasing number of UK teenagers and adults bake their bodies on sunbeds as they prepare for the summer months. However, the long-term effects of using a sunbed can be serious, and this kind of artificial tan, also called a base tan, does not protect against sunburn!

How do they work?

The most common type of artificial tanning device is the sunbed which consists of a collection of horizontal UV radiation emitting lamps enabling the user to lie under (and/or on) or stand encased by the light.

Sunbeds contain fluorescent tubes which tan the skin by emitting UV (Ultra Violet) rays, the same type of radiation that is found in natural sunlight. Two types of radiation reach the earth; UVA and UVB rays. About 95% of sunlight is made up of UVA rays, which causes skin ageing, and about 5% is UVB rays, which causes skin to burn. In Britain, there is no regulation of the makeup of UV radiation in sunbeds.

Sunlight promotes the body's production of Vitamin D, and can be good for conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, rickets or jaundice. However, extensive exposure to sun can be dangerous, and tanning is the skin's way of protecting itself from further UV damage.

What do they emit?

Predominately UVA radiation is emitted from sunbeds. The British Standards classify sunbeds according to their UVA and UVB effective irradiances, however there is a wide variation in the output and the style (stand up or lie down units).

Recently manufactures have produced devices that increase the level of UVB output, due to an increased demand for a tan for cosmetic/fashion reasons. As a consequence the risk of skin cancer has increased as many now exceed the effective irradiance of midday southern European Sun (Oliver et al, 2007).

However, irrespective of the UV radiation wavelength, DNA damage induced by exposure to UV light can cause skin ageing, mutation of the skin, and skin cancer.


In Northern Europe, approximately 10% of the population use sunbeds to get a tan. Western cultures associate tanned skin with health and beauty, and are predominantly used by people with fair skin. For some, tanned skin has become so addictive that a whole new term - "tanorexics" - has emerged to describe them.


The British Photodermatology Group (BPG) recommends a maximum of 20 sun bed sessions per year (Diffey et al. 1990).

Cost to the NHS

The cost of treatment and diagnosis of NMSC (Non Melanoma Skin Cancers) to the NHS is a considerable burden on the NHS, and is estimated at almost £58 million in 2002, compared to £13 million for melanoma (Morris et al, 2005). Additionally the costs to the NHS for eye damage caused by UV radiation and sunbeds is also substantial.


DNA and tissue damage is caused by sunlight and UV light from sunbeds

DNA damage causes mutation

Mutation causes skin cancer and ageing

The incidence of all skin cancers is increasing within the UK