A solarium is any tanning unit that uses UV radiation to tan the skin. Solariums are also known as sunbeds, sunlamps or tanning beds.
There is no such thing as a safe solarium tan. UV radiation from solariums can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Solariums can also cause eye damage and immediate skin damage, such as sunburn, irritation, redness and swelling. A solarium tan does not provide your skin with sun protection, so your skin is still prone to damage when outdoors exposed to the sun’s natural UV radiation.
Public education campaigns about the dangers of UV radiation from the sun have resulted in large changes in the awareness and knowledge of the risks of skin cancer and over exposure to the sun's UV rays. However, some Australians continue to use a solarium (sunbed or tanning bed) to develop a tan, under the mistaken belief that these devices are safe.
How UV affects your skin
Skin cells in the top layer of skin (epidermis) produce a pigment called melanin, which gives skin its natural colour. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken and tan. A tan is a sign that the skin has been damaged from UV radiation. It is not a sign of good health. A tan offers a very limited sunburn protection (usually the same as using SPF3 sunscreen).
Tanning without burning can still cause skin damage, premature skin ageing and skin cancer. UV radiation can cause irreparable DNA damage. Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation from the sun or from a solarium, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Very fair-skinned people have to take extra care in the sun. No amount of sunbaking will result in a tan. Their skin will just burn and become damaged. People who sunburn and never tan in the sun will likewise not tan in a solarium.
Victorian solarium regulations
The Victorian solarium industry has been regulated since 2008. From January 2015, the Victorian Government banned commercial tanning units in Victoria.
Any person or business that possesses, sells or maintains a tanning unit needs to hold a management licence with the Department of Health. The current laws for the solarium industry will be in force until 31 December 2014 and must continue to be followed.
These laws require operators of a commercial tanning unit to make sure that:
- Any person under the age of 18 years is not allowed to use a solarium.
- Any person with very fair skin (skin type 1) is not allowed to use a solarium.
- Every client has a skin type assessment conducted prior to using a solarium.
- Every client signs the prescribed client consent form prior to using a solarium.
- Proof of age documents are sighted prior to a client signing a consent form.
- Mandatory health warnings are displayed.
Solarium or tanning salon use in Australia
In the decade up to 2006, there was a 500 per cent increase in the number of solariums in Melbourne. Following the introduction of legislation and negative publicity about the industry, the number of tanning units in Victoria has decreased by 51 per cent between 2006 and 2008-09.
In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) moved UV-emitting tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category, labelling them as carcinogenic to humans.
Research shows that people who use a solarium before the age of 35 have a 59 per cent greater risk of melanoma than those who do not use solariums. Each year in Australia, it is estimated that solarium use causes around 281 melanoma (a potentially deadly type of skin cancer) cases, 43 melanoma-related deaths and 2,572 new cases of squamous cell carcinoma.
A recent study estimated that one in six melanomas in Australians aged 18 to 29 years would be prevented if all solariums were shut down.
A solarium tan is not a safe tan
Research shows that using a solarium increases your risk of skin cancer and contributes to premature ageing of the skin. People who use a solarium have a 20 per cent greater risk of melanoma than those who don’t use a solarium, and the risk rises to 59 per cent if exposure was before 35 years of age. The risk of melanoma from a solarium increases with more frequent use or if you started using a solarium at a young age.
According to the Australian solarium standard, a solarium may produce concentrated doses of UV radiation up to three times the strength of the midday summer sun. This is equivalent to a UV level of 36 (the highest UV level in the peak of Victoria’s summer is 12).
Recent tests have shown that 15 per cent of tanning beds exceed this level, with some emitting up to six times more UVA (see below) than the summer sun.
It is a myth that using a solarium is a safe way to pre-tan and protect your skin from burning in the sun. Solarium tans offer no protection against genetic damage to skin cells, which can occur without burning. Under the Trade Practices Act (2001)
, solarium operators are not allowed to advertise their services as safe.
UVA radiation and solariums
UVA radiation represents most of the radiation emitted in a solarium. It penetrates the deepest layer of the skin and causes damage that includes:
- deterioration of the skin
- premature ageing, wrinkling and loss of elasticity of the skin
- reduced collagen levels in the skin
- blotchiness and pigmentation of the skin.
High doses of UVA radiation can also cause sunburn, genetic damage to skin cells and skin cancer.
Some cosmetics and prescription drugs can increase a person’s sensitivity to UVA radiation. These include some antibiotics, medications for high blood pressure, antidepressants, some medications for skin conditions, medications that suppress the immune system (such as those used after organ transplants) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Using a solarium while using the cosmetics and drugs mentioned above, may result in severe sunburn. It can also cause an itchy and painful rash, followed by blotchy, dark patches on the skin and damage to the eyes.
UVB radiation and solariums
UVB radiation emitted in a solarium is even more dangerous than UVA. It penetrates the uppermost layer of skin and is the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer. Exposure to UVB radiation from using a solarium can also result in minor skin irritations such as rashes, itchiness and dryness.
Skin cancer and other damage from solarium use
Every time skin is exposed to the sun or a solarium, the total lifetime dose of UV radiation is increased. Over time, this damage adds up, increasing the risk of:
- Skin cancer – until recently it was believed that UVB was the sole cause of skin cancer, but we now know that both UVA and UVB are responsible for causing skin cancer.
- Eye damage – when eyes are exposed to UVA in a solarium, the cornea (the transparent layer in the front of the eye) and conjunctiva (the mucous lining of the white part of the eye and the eyelids) may become inflamed, damaging sight and increasing the potential for cataracts and temporary blindness.
- Skin irritation – up to 50 per cent of the people who use a solarium develop minor skin irritations such as redness, itchiness, dryness and aggravation of existing rashes.
- Sunburn – short-term effects of using solariums can include burning and blistering.
- Skin damage – this is impossible to reverse and in the long term, skin will age prematurely and skin cancer may develop.
- Changes to the immune system – UV radiation from a solarium has been shown to cause changes in the body’s immune system, the effects of which are not yet known.
Having two solarium sessions within 48 hours increases the risk of skin damage. This is because of the danger of exposing skin to UV radiation when it is already damaged from the previous visit. It is against the law for solarium owners to allow two solarium sessions within 48 hours in some parts of Australia, including Victoria.
Australian standard for the solarium industry
All solarium facilities must be licensed and follow elements of the Australian/New Zealand standard for the solarium industry (AS/NZS 2635). In January 2009, a new version of this standard was released based on the Australian Standard AS/NZS 2635:2008, Solaria for Cosmetic Purposes
While the standard is voluntary, most states and territories in Australia now have legislation and regulations to govern the operation of these devices, based on the revised standard, which places greater responsibility on solarium operators to adequately inform their customers and lessen the risks to their health. For further information on the national standard, see the Standards Australia website.
Avoid the risk of solariums
Tanned skin is not healthy skin. Be proud of your natural skin colour. Taking care of your skin now will help prevent premature ageing and reduce your risk of skin cancer. If you must tan your body, a fake tanning method that doesn’t use UV radiation is preferable (but remember you still require sun protection when using fake tanning products).
If you do visit a solarium in Victoria, check that they provide a consent form, display mandatory health warnings, complete a skin assessment and make sure that you wear protective eyewear. This way you will know they are aware of their obligations under the Australian Standard and are following the requirements under their Victorian licence.
Avoid combining indoor tanning with outdoor tanning and always wear protective eye goggles. Never tan the fragile skin on your face.
Cancer Council Australia and the Australasian College of Dermatologists do not support tanning in solariums in any circumstances.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your pharmacist
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information and support.
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line Tel. 13 14 50
- Radiation Safety Hotline, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 767 469
Things to remember
- A solarium tan is not a safe tan.
- Each time you expose your skin to UV radiation, in the sun or in a solarium, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
- Over-exposure to UV radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer and premature ageing.
- Tanning in a solarium does not make it safer to tan in the sun.