Tanning beds and equipment

If you think using tanning equipment that emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation (rays) is a safe way to tan, think again. There is no safe way to tan. Health Canada recommends you do not use tanning equipment (like sunlamps or tanning beds). However, if you do, it is important to know the risks.

Tanning equipment and UV radiation

The UV output levels of tanning equipment can vary a lot. Some machines can emit on average 2 to 14 times more UVA radiation and up to 10 times more UVB radiation than the sun at noon in the summer.

A tan is a result of your body producing melanin (a substance that gives skin its colour). This process can happen when your skin is exposed to UV rays.

UVA radiation is the most common type used in commercial tanning salons. UVA penetrates deeper into the skin damaging skin cells called keratinocytes in the lower layers, where most skin cancers occur. UVA can create a quick darkening of the skin.

UVB radiation is 1,000 times more likely to cause sunburn than the same intensity of UVA radiation.  Commercial tanning equipment emits mostly UVA radiation, with some UVB. Both UVA and UVB  rays can cause skin cancer because they damage skin cells and alter their DNA. Both types also contribute to premature aging of skin.

UVC radiation is hazardous to all forms of life, even with only very short exposures. Thankfully, UVC radiation from the sun is completely absorbed by the ozone layer in the higher atmosphere and never reaches the earth’s level. 

Health risks from tanning equipment

Like natural UV rays, the risks of UV exposure from sun lamps and tanning beds far outweigh the benefits. You may think a tan looks healthy, but a tan is actually a sign that UV rays have already damaged your skin.

There is a lot of scientific evidence that repeated exposure to UV rays from tanning equipment can cause skin cancer:

  • International experts from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found significant evidence of an association between artificial tanning and the development of skin cancer.
  • The WHO and IARC also determined that the use of tanning equipment can increase the risk of developing melanoma by 59% if the age of first exposure was prior to 35 years of age.
  • In 2009 the WHO changed the classification of the use of UV-emitting tanning devices to "carcinogenic to humans."

Skin damage caused by UV exposure is cumulative. Your risk of getting skin cancer increases if you use tanning equipment, especially if you use it repeatedly before the age of 35. If you are under the age of 18 you should not use tanning equipment because you are at an even greater risk of developing cancer.  Many provinces across Canada have banned the use of tanning equipment for people under the age of 18.  

Although the primary concern from excessive UV radiation exposure from tanning beds is sunburn and a significant increase in the risk of cancer, UV radiation damage from tanning equipment is not limited to the skin. Too much exposure to UV radiation can also cause:

  • sunburns
  • premature skin aging
  • a weakened immune system
  • eye problems
  • If you don’t use proper eye protection, UV exposure can cause temporary but painful injuries to the cornea (photokeratitis) and conjunctiva (photoconjunctivitis). Exposure to UV rays is also linked to the development of cataracts and cancerous and pre-cancerous growths of the eye, all of which could cause blindness.

Myths about tanning equipment

Pre-tanning before a tropical vacation will NOT prevent a sunburn

Getting a tan under UV sunlamps or tanning beds will only provide very limited protection for your skin. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least sun protection factor (SPF) 30 when you travel south.

Tanning equipment should NOT be used as a source of vitamin D

Getting enough Vitamin D is important for maintaining skeletal health. You can get enough vitamin D with only a small amount of sun exposure and by eating a healthy diet. Vitamin D production in the skin happens mostly through exposure to UVB. 

Tanning equipment is NOT safer than natural sun exposure

Tanning equipment usually emits higher levels of UV radiation than the UV radiation outside. Compared to the sun, sunlamps and tanning beds can emit up to 10 times more UVB radiation and on average 2 to 14 times more UVA radiation than the sun.

How to reduce your risk

It is important to make an informed decision about how long and how often you are exposed to UV radiation from tanning lamps. If you go over the recommended time for your skin type, or use tanning lamps more often than recommended, your risk of health problems will increase.

There is no safe way to tan, however, if you do decide to use tanning equipment, follow these steps to help reduce your risk:

  • Look for, read, and follow the warning and technical labels on the equipment. Labels tell you the recommended time you should be exposed each session (depending on your skin type). Skin types are categorized as follows:
    • Type I: always burns, never tans
    • Type II: always burns and tans very little
    • Type III: burns somewhat but tans gradually
    • Type IV: burns a little but tans easily (olive skin)
    • Type V: rarely burns and tans easily (brown skin)
    • Type VI: never burns, tans darkly black (dark brown/black skin)
  • Talk to the salon operator about your skin's sensitivity and your ability to tan.
  • Do not go over the recommended time in a tanning session for your skin type.
  • Do not use tanning lamps more often than is prescribed for your particular skin type.
  • Always wear the safety eyewear that is recommended for the type of lamp you are using.
  • Be sure there is a physical barrier (like a clear sheet of acrylic) between you and the tanning bulbs. This will help prevent heat burns from the lamp.
  • Allow at least 48 hours between each tanning session. This will give your skin a chance to repair some of the damage from the UV rays and may slow down the aging effects caused by the exposure.
  • Report any side effects (like sunburn or itchiness) to the salon operator. In cases of severe sunburn, see your health care provider.
  • Try to find other ways to look tanned. You can apply a cream that will colour your skin and give you the appearance of a tan.

General sun safety tips

It is always important to protect yourself when you or your family are exposed to either natural or artificial UV rays. When you’re outside, find shade, cover up and wear sunscreen with at least sun protection factor (SPF) 30, especially between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. or when the UV Index is 3 or higher.

Follow sun safety tips on both sunny and cloudy days, since up to 80% of the sun's rays can get through light cloud, mist and fog.

Tanning equipment guidelines for owners, operators and users

Health Canada analyzes and manages health risks related to UV rays. We regulate the sale, lease, and importation of tanning lamps and check that equipment complies with the Radiation Emitting Devices Act. We promote public awareness of the harmful effects of UV rays. In collaboration with the provinces and territories, Health Canada also publishes Federal Provincial Territorial Guidelines for Tanning Equipment, Owners, Operators and Users. These guidelines outline general information on the risks associated with tanning and list certain cosmetic and medicinal products that increase the sensitivity to UV radiation.

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