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The Real Reasons Why Tanning Beds Aren’t Yet Banned In The UK

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Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun. 
When Kim Kardashian revealed that she has a sunbed bed in her office, indoor tanning was back on the debate agenda. Despite well-documented evidence of the dangers associated with their use, sunbeds remain a divisive issue. In 2009, it became illegal for anybody under 18 to use a sunbed in Scotland, while England, Wales and Northern Ireland rolled out similar laws to protect minors in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Elsewhere, Iran, Brazil and Australia have banned commercial sunbeds for people of all ages, citing their extreme health risks. This begs the question: Why haven’t we followed suit? 

Why are sunbeds so dangerous? 

Let’s be clear: sunbeds are not safe. “Sunbeds emit ultraviolet radiation (UV), which damages the DNA in skin cells [ageing the skin] and increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma — the deadliest form,” says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and founder of Self London. Research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), cited by the World Health Organisation and Cancer Research UK, found that those who had used a sunbed at least once are 20% more likely to develop melanoma than those who never have. Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist at OneWelbeck and Skin55, notes that, while it is the most concerning, melanoma is not the only type of skin cancer linked to sunbed use. “Unregulated UV exposure via sunbeds can increase the risk of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma — the two most common forms of skin cancer in the UK,” he says.

If sunbeds are so dangerous, why are they still popular? 

Sadly, young people are most at risk, reports the NHS. This is not to lecture or shame anybody who uses, or has used, sunbeds. A quick scroll through TikTok proves that sunbeds continue to be popular, at least in part thanks to the various pervasive myths that surround them. One argument from those in favour of sunbeds is that they can be used “responsibly”, for example, by using them infrequently or by taking precautions, such as covering moles with plasters (neither of these measures prevent skin cancer). 
Another common misconception is the idea of a “base tan” which suggests that getting a certain amount of UV exposure before a holiday “prepares” the skin for a prolonged time in the sun. This is something Dr Phillips rejects: “This is completely false, as it unnecessarily exposes you to more UV radiation, causing skin damage and potentially leading to mutations that could develop into skin cancer.”
Sunbeds are sometimes marketed as a way of getting a “safer tan”, said Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, in a statement, but there is no such thing as safe tanning from ultraviolet radiation. Though such machines would breach today's trading standards, Dr Mahto notes that the radiation emitted by some sunbeds can be even stronger than the sun. “As someone who treats skin cancer on a near daily basis, I would highly advise against their use,” she warns.
Then there is the widespread belief that sunbed sessions help to improve certain skin conditions. Dr Mahto says that the opposite is true. In fact, she explains that prolonged and frequent sunbed use can worsen existing conditions like eczema and psoriasis and weaken the skin’s immune system, increasing the likelihood of infections. While a specific kind of light therapy is used to safely treat such skin conditions in a clinical setting, this is controlled and utilises very targeted wavelengths of UV light. As the NHS clearly states, these treatments are not the same as using a sunbed.

Why are there so many sunbed shops in the UK?

Estimates vary, but there are thought to be at least 2,000 sunbed shops currently operating in the UK, with sessions starting from as little as £3. Amy Callaghan, a Scottish National Party politician and spokesperson for health and social care who was diagnosed with melanoma at 19, and again at 21, has been cancer-free since 2014. She notes that this high street presence may play a role in why sunbeds aren’t yet banned: “I think [tanning shops are] an entirely inappropriate thing to have on the high street because of the damage [they do], but also particularly the offers that you see,” says Callaghan, adding, “The more minutes that you go for, the cheaper it seems to be.” Callaghan suggests that sunbed shops are sustaining the high street and hints that this may be why politicians are hesitant to “get their hands dirty” with the issue. 
But here’s the rub: Despite efforts to educate the public, the accessibility of sunbeds in the UK may perpetuate a perception that their use is relatively safe, says Dr Mahto. “I think this is why we still see them used so much,” she says. Dr Mahto believes it is crucial that the consequences of sunbed use are emphasised and stricter regulations called for.

Why is a complete ban on sunbeds necessary? 

All of the doctors I spoke to for this investigation said that they would support a sunbed ban in the UK. Frustratingly, it doesn’t seem to be on the cards. In 2019, politician Pauline Latham led the parliamentary debate calling for a ban on sunbeds; the issue was discussed at length. Latham is passionate about issues relating to skin cancer following her brother’s death from melanoma aged 54. She had her own cancer scare in 2018 when she found a mole that proved malignant. Since the debate, no further regulations have been brought in. Latham told Refinery29 that, sadly, sunbeds are seen as a “minor fringe issue” — in other words, a ban is currently low down on the government's list of priorities.
Young women in particular are a key target market for tanning; posters of women in bikinis are often used to advertise sunbed shops. As skin cancer incidence rates have been shown to increase steadily in women from around the age of 20 to 24, with diagnosis 2.7 times higher in women than men among this age group, one might argue that the impact on this demographic is being overlooked.
Citing the government’s plans for a smoke-free generation, Callaghan asks: “Why can’t we have a sunbed-free generation, too? Why are we taking lung cancer more seriously than melanoma? Too many people die from melanoma.” The statistics are undeniable: Nine out of 10 melanoma skin cancers in the UK could be prevented by staying safe in the sun and avoiding sunbeds, says Dr Sharp. Concerningly, last year Cancer Research UK reported that melanoma cases are at an all-time high in the UK.
With this in mind, sunbed use is a public health issue. Refinery29 contacted the Department of Health and Social Care to establish the government’s current position on a potential future ban. A spokesperson responded: “The risks of UV radiation from sunbeds in causing skin cancer, particularly among young people, is why their use for those under the age of 18 has been made illegal. Clear guidance on the risks associated with sunbeds [is] provided by both NHSE [NHS England] and UKHSA [UK Health Security Agency] so users can make an informed decision on sunbed use.”
This doesn’t clarify whether the government would consider banning sunbeds, though it does acknowledge the risks of use and their link to skin cancers. This response is largely disappointing considering these dangers do not magically lessen after one’s 18th birthday. In fact, according to research cited by the World Health Organisation (WHO), using a sunbed for the first time before the age of 35 increases the risk of developing melanoma by 59%. Providing online guidance on the risks is one thing; ensuring widespread awareness and understanding of said risks is another. 
A quick Google search brings up hundreds of stories of what it’s like to live with melanoma as a result of using sunbeds. UK-based fashion blogger and digital content creator Izzy Tomassi, formerly an avid tanner, was diagnosed with stage 1B melanoma — the most aggressive form of skin cancer — at just 23. Thankfully, Tomassi’s treatment was a success but the experience completely changed her outlook on tanning and sunbeds: “Despite my ordeal, I know people who still use sunbeds all the time,” Tomassi told Refinery29. “Now I know that tanning isn’t worth the risk [...] I can’t express how dangerous tanning is.”

Will a sunbed ban impact beauty businesses?

Alarmingly, despite efforts to publicise these dangers, sunbeds don’t seem to be getting any less popular. If anything, their use appears to be on the rise. Data from Treatwell shows that in 2023, the bookings for sunbed and tanning booths increased by 8% from the previous year. (The figures for 2020 to 2022 are skewed due to shops and salons being closed during the pandemic.) As part of the conversation, however, it’s important to acknowledge the impact a sunbed ban would have on businesses which offer them. Dangers aside, sunbeds make money and provide business owners with income that could be lost. As long as sunbeds are legal and their demand remains, why would small business owners choose to part with them? 
Salon owner Maria Hann has four sunbeds and says that they play an important role in her business: “We would take a huge hit [financially] and lose two staff members,” she says of the impact of banning them. Hann does not support a ban, explaining that she takes several steps to meet the guidance for artificial tanning devices in her salon. Hann believes that smoking should be banned before sunbeds, though she does agree that “guidelines must be set”. 
On the other hand, Paul Lorigan, professor of medical oncology at The University of Manchester and honorary consultant at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, says that we can learn from Australia’s bans, which were announced at least a year before coming into effect in each state. “There needs to be consideration given to the financial implications for the businesses involved, many in more deprived areas,” he says. “[Business owners] need to be given time to allow them to diversify into other aesthetic areas.” Latham cites spray tanning — a global industry estimated to be worth $349.7 million in 2023 — as one example of a safer alternative. Hann says her salon used to offer spray tanning, but as the market is competitive, it proved difficult to turn a profit. She adds that because spray tanning is also more time consuming — and she wouldn’t compromise on the quality of the tan formula — it wasn’t cost effective. While the demand for spray tans may be somewhat higher if sunbeds are no longer an option, replacing lost income would be a process.
Certainly, financial compensation for small businesses like Hann’s is important in the event of a ban. A buy-back scheme (whereby the government offers a financial incentive for giving up sunbeds) would mitigate the impact of a ban on businesses. With this in mind, Callaghan notes that this would have to be done in such a way that ensures the sunbeds don’t end up in the wrong hands — potentially by destroying the machines. “If we’re talking about the purchasing of that equipment, where does it go?” Callaghan asks. “I would be quite concerned that we could end up with a whole generation of folk with sunbeds in their back rooms.” This, she stresses, could move the risk from a somewhat “regulated” place to a riskier one. 
Research published in 2022 by the University of Manchester estimates that a buy-back scheme could cost between £10.9 million and £54 million in England alone, but also suggests that this could be part of the government’s 10-year national war on cancer: a plan to tackle everything from achieving earlier diagnoses to improving treatments and survival rates. Longer term, the researchers — who limited their study to a group of 18-year-olds — estimated that in England, a ban would save the NHS £700,000 during their lifetimes, result in 1,000 fewer cases of melanoma and have significant and positive economic effects.

Will an outright sunbed ban encourage an underground tanning market?

Sure enough, it has been suggested that a ban might encourage an underground market, whereby some traders may continue to offer illegal sunbed services under the radar. Undoubtedly, this would need to be monitored. Between 2015 and 2019, the Victorian government in Australia issued fines of as much as $52,000, many of which were to traders operating sunbeds out of residential properties.
Realistically, some of the concerning risks associated with an underground sunbed market (such as excessive use or permitting sessions to under 18s) could well be happening already in the UK. Currently, there is nothing stopping someone from visiting multiple sunbed shops in the same day or week, while at-home tanning machines are available to buy and use. All things considered, the risks are far outweighed by the benefits of a ban. Dr Mahto agrees: “Education and enforcement efforts can mitigate the underground market risks,” she says. “Additionally, implementing a ban sends a clear message about the dangers of sunbeds, potentially reducing their appeal and overall usage.”

What will it take to ban sunbeds in the UK?

When Refinery29 asked Latham what it might take for sunbeds to be banned in the UK, she was less than optimistic: “I’m afraid shock tactics would be required to make a difference,” she said, suggesting it may take somebody high-profile to be diagnosed with melanoma resulting from sunbed use. The thing is, people with huge platforms are already speaking out about this very issue. Actor Michelle Monaghan, who frequented tanning salons as a teenager, previously spoke to Refinery29 about her melanoma diagnosis, as did TikTok dermatologist Dr Muneeb Shah, aka Derm Doctor, who developed a basal cell carcinoma following the use of tanning beds when he was younger. Additionally, while she hasn’t said anything about potential causes, Khloé Kardashian has been open about having a melanoma removed from her cheek. Considering the number of high-profile people who are raising awareness of melanoma, it’s concerning that the reality isn’t always hitting home.  
The dangers of sunbeds should be taken seriously. At the very least, sales of at-home tanning machines should be banned and far stricter regulation of commercial machines brought in as soon as possible. The minimum age for using them could be increased in line with the aforementioned statistic on use before age 35, but at the very least, politicians should consider a phased approach, similar to the one taken with cigarette sales.
Callaghan suggests that a successful future ban will be underpinned by knowledge and understanding. “[It’s important to try] to get people to realise that skin cancer is serious. Your skin is your biggest organ and you need to protect it the same way you would [others],” she says. She puts forward a convincing analogy: “Say your liver was inflamed; you would take that very seriously, I’m sure, so why would you not take your skin getting burnt (and a potential mole changing) very seriously, too? It sends shivers up my spine when I think of what people do to their skin — or don’t do to protect it.” 

How can I support a sunbed ban in the UK?

To that end, Callaghan says the government has to lead by example and ensure that this information is getting to people. “I’m not seeing that from the government,” she says. “I certainly believe that this is why [issues around sun safety are] not being taken as seriously by the wider public.” Callaghan continues, “If the government [encourages] you to protect your skin, you’re going to be a bit more likely to do it. If they’re going to be blasé towards protecting your skin — towards skin cancer — then why would [you] do something different?”
Overall, an outright sunbed ban is a move that countless dermatologists and scientists, as well as politicians like Callaghan and Latham, believe will save lives. Join Refinery29 by signing our petition to ban sunbeds once and for all, because using them is never worth risking your life.

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