Sunbeds and cancer

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 the amount of UV people receive varies enormously too.

IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) agrees there is sufficient evidence to show that using sunbeds causes malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. They also state that sunbeds provide no positive health benefits. And using a sunbed before you go on holiday doesn’t protect against further damage from the sun while you’re away.

Sunbed use: The facts

1. Skin damage from sunbeds is just as big a problem for young people

You can't always see the damage that UV rays do straight away as it builds up gradually. But every time you use a sunbed you are damaging your skin, making it look worse in the long run. Using sunbeds for the first time before the age of 35 increases the risk of developing melanoma skin cancer by nearly 60%. Surgical treatment for skin cancer can result in serious scarring, and melanoma can be fatal.

2. Spending more time on sunbeds will not make your tan look any better

No matter how much UV you receive, there comes a point when your skin won't get any darker. Using sunbeds can make your skin coarse, leathery and wrinkled. Trying to increase a tan by having more sunbed sessions or using a sunbed after sunbathing does even more damage to your skin.

3. Sunbed tanning is no safer than sun tanning

Sunbeds are not a 'safe' alternative to sun tanning. The main cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. Like the sun, sunbeds give off UVA and UVB rays. While sunburn is mostly caused by UVB, both types of UV can cause DNA damage and lead to skin cancer.

Modern sunbeds emit mostly UVA rays, but UVB rays can make up anywhere from 0.5-4% of their total output. These emissions can be comparable to the midday sun. And the amount of UVA given off can be 10-15 times higher than the midday sun.

4. You cannot tan safely by building your sunbed tan gradually

Using sunscreen or limiting your time on a sunbed will not completely protect your skin from damage and ageing. In fact, short periods of intense, irregular UV exposure, like you get on a sunbed, damage your skin.

5. A sunbed tan will not provide much protection from the sun on holiday

At most, a sunbed tan is the equivalent to a sunscreen with SPF of just 2-4. Not enough to keep you safe in the sun.

6. As long as I don’t burn, I won’t damage my skin

Burning or going red under a sunbed is a sign that you have seriously harmed your skin. UV can penetrate deep into the skin's layers and damage the DNA in our skin cells. Some of the damage may happen before you get burnt or your skin goes red. Cells damaged by UV are at greater risk of mutating and then dividing uncontrollably, which is what happens in cancer.

7. You don't need a sunbed to produce vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for healthy bones. Our bodies make the vitamin when our skin is exposed to UV rays and it is also present in certain foods. In general, people only need short exposures to the sun to produce adequate amounts. So you don’t need a sunbed to get your vitamins.

Read more about vitamin D.

8. Use of sunbeds by under-18s is against the law in the UK

The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act came into force in Scotland in 2009, England and Wales in 2011, and Northern Ireland in May 2012.

Resources for sun protection campaigns and schools

Two women chatting joyfully in the sunLearn more about our sun protection campaigns and sun safety at work.
 

Last reviewed

Rate this page:

Currently rated: 3.4 out of 5 based on 25 votes
Thank you!
We've recently made some changes to the site, tell us what you think

Find a clinical trial

Search our clinical trials database for all cancer trials and studies recruiting in the UK

Cancer Chat forum

Refer your patients to our forum to talk to other people affected by cancer

Nurse helpline

0808 800 4040

Questions about cancer? Call freephone or email us

Share this page