Public health, environmental and social determinants of health (PHE)

More can be done to restrict sunbeds to prevent increasing rates of skin cancer

21 June 2017, Geneva

Tanning beds

WHO underscores national actions to limit the use of artificial tanning devices (sunbeds) in a bid to reduce the associated health risks, such as melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.

For more than three decades, the deliberate sunbed exposure to ultraviolent radiation (UVR) for cosmetic purposes has been driving up the incidence of skin cancers and driving down the age of their first appearance, according to a new WHO report “Artificial tanning devices: public health interventions to manage sunbeds.”

Sunbed use has been estimated to be responsible for more than 450 000 non-melanoma skin cancer cases and more than 10 000 melanoma cases each year in the United States of America, Europe and Australia combined. The largest portion of users are women, and in particular adolescents and young adults.

“There’s no doubt about it: sunbeds are dangerous to our health,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Countries need to consider whether to ban or restrict their use, and to inform all users about the health risks.”

Preventing sunbed use

In 2009, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified exposure to UV-emitting tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans. More than 40 national and provincial authorities around the world have now implemented outright bans or restrictions on the use of sunbeds. However, much more work is still needed to restrict their use.

WHO’s new report outlines the policies taken by some countries to regulate sunbeds: either ban them outright or limit and manage their use. Options to restrict access to sunbeds include setting an age-limit on use, preventing use by skin-sensitive populations, such as those with who freckle or burn easily, and banning unsupervised access.

Beyond restricting, some nations have managed sunbed use by licensing tanning establishments, limiting sunbed exposures, training operators and taxing tanning sessions. Educating the public is seen as essential through awareness campaigns, warning notices and information forms.

Various regulations have been enacted in a number of countries. Brazil and Australia have banned commercial sunbeds. For example, countries like Canada, France, Ireland and the United States of America have implemented controls to restrict sunbed operators from advertising non-cosmetic health benefits. In Italy, legislative controls have been introduced that require sunbed operators to prohibit use by people with fair-skin and pregnant women.

Harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation

Sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths emit harmful levels of UVR that can be at least as intense as midday tropical sunlight, and increase the risk of developing melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. Additional health risks from sunbeds include sunburns, accelerated skin ageing, eye inflammation and suppressed immune system.

Sunbeds have been found to pose a specific risk for melanoma, independent of skin type and of solar exposure. Melanoma risk increases with younger age of first sunbed use and with greater lifetime use of sunbeds. Research shows that people who have used a sunbed at least once at any stage in their life have a 20% higher risk of developing melanoma than people who have never used a sunbed, and the first use of sunbeds before the age of 35 increases the risk of developing melanoma by 59%.