There’s no denying the risks that come with sunbeds, yet a staggering number of us are still using them. So why are we choosing to ignore the warnings? Stylist investigates
In the near decade since Stylist launched, we have covered everything from vaginal surgery to body hair on our beauty pages. But we’ve never published a feature on sunbeds. We know our readers are intelligent women who see a tanning shop on the high street and keep on walking. Recently, though, a spate of sunbed fans have come out of hiding, openly admitting that they regularly book in for sessions and refusing to apologise for it. These are smart, savvy individuals – some of them even work at Stylist. So why has this dangerous habit become so mainstream?
According to Mintel, 10% of UK consumers aged 25-44 used a sunbed in the last year (and that’s just those who were honest about it), while The Sunbed Association estimates there are between 3,500 and 4,000 salons in the UK, making it big business. In fact, earlier this year the proprietors of The Tanning Shop sold their company for £45million. This is despite the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation) categorising sunbeds as the highest-risk carcinogenic product alongside cigarettes, arsenic and asbestos way back in 2009.
And that could be part of the problem: people are in denial about the risks due to a lack of awareness. Public health investment in sunbed warnings has dramatically decreased in the past 10 years or so, perhaps because it’s assumed we all know the dangers. But this is obviously not the case. One of the biggest misconceptions about sunbeds is that the UV rays can help conditions such as acne and eczema – a myth actively promoted by some tanning salons.
As Dr Dev Shah of the British Association of Dermatologists explains, “One reason sunbeds are still popular is people think the consequences of tanning won’t happen to them,” he says. “Studies repeatedly show that we associate them with attractiveness and health.”
But there’s a more serious reason than just wanting to look ‘healthy’. “Research has shown that UV light exposure – artificial or real – causes the release of beta-endorphins, a feelgood chemical,” says chartered psychologist Suzy Reading. “The effect doesn’t last for long but there is evidence to suggest it’s addictive.” In fact, a 2017 study in the British Journal Of Dermatology showed that almost 20% of indoor tanning users have addictive symptoms. We spoke to three women who have used – and, for two, still use – sunbeds despite the dangers.
“I use sunbeds four times a week”
Emma-Leigh Hull, 22, is an account executive who believes the results outweigh the health risks
“I started using sunbeds two years ago after a friend encouraged me. She’s mixed race whereas I’m naturally very fair. She didn’t help my self-esteem because she always looked so tanned. Now I use sunbeds three or four times a week for between 12 and 15 minutes. I know that’s a long time for my skintone, but I get anxious if I start to look pale. I love that it helps bring out my freckles, which stops me from wanting to wear thick foundation. And I always wait the recommended 48 hours between sessions.
I don’t really have any concerns for my health. I know about the cancer risks because there are posters in the salon, but I just ignore them. I know it’s the wrong attitude but I have an active social life and I like to look good when I go out, plus I never want to be the pale one in photos. I did try fake tan but I stopped because I looked terrible. It’s always so tricky to use. Some of my friends have said that seeing my skin change colour has made them want to use sunbeds too – compliments are always good.
I consider using a sunbed a form of fake tanning: it doesn’t feel real because I haven’t sat out in the sun for eight hours. It’s also nice knowing I’ve completed a week’s worth of tanning in less than 15 minutes a time.
For me, the visible results definitely outweigh the health risks. It will probably backfire on me in the future, but until then I’ll carry on using them.”
“Fake tan aggravates my skin”
Sascha Moore, 29, is a playwright who sometimes uses sunbeds to help her feel confident before events
“Using sunbeds never really crossed my mind until about four years ago. I thought tanning shops were really Nineties and, until I found out that a few women I worked with went on their lunch break, I didn’t even know they still existed. The women didn’t necessarily look like they used sunbeds because they weren’t overly tanned – just glowy – so I thought I’d give it a go because I really hate fake tan. I have sensitive skin on my legs, which means tanning agents cause aggravation, so the tan could be even but my skin would still look bumpy. I like to be tanned for a big event or at the start of summer, hence I use sunbeds. I would love to find a product that could cease my sunbed use.
The first time I went to a salon, the staff member said I should only go on for six minutes because I have fair skin. I’ve never gone above that. I don’t remember ever being talked through the risks associated, but all the salons have posters on the walls with warnings on them. I tend to use them around three or four times a year. I wear SPF30 on my face every day and when I’m on holiday I start with SPF50 and never sit out in the sun all day or let myself burn.
For me, it’s all about confidence. I think using sunbeds definitely helps with the keratosis pilaris (chicken skin) that I get on the backs of my arms and it helps me feel less pasty. Maybe I’m naïve, but my sunbed use is so infrequent that I feel like I’m in control because I don’t go overboard.”
“I thought it would help my eczema”
Moya Lothian-McLean, 22, is Stylist’s editorial assistant. She used sunbeds for three years for her eczema
“I started using sunbeds in 2014. I have chronic eczema on my hands and a friend told me they were good for helping to clear it up, so I thought I’d try it as a last resort – I’d tried everything – and as a bonus I’d get a tan. I didn’t bother getting advice from a dermatologist; to be honest I knew using sunbeds was bad for me but I didn’t want to listen to anyone tell me that.
The first time I went into my local tanning shop, the staff member recommended using a sunbed for 25 minutes at a time to help my eczema – the equivalent of a full day’s tan. So that’s what I carried on doing for three years whenever I could afford to, usually on a Sunday when there was a special offer.
At first my skin did get a little better, but after phases of using sunbeds, I realised I was in a vicious cycle. I was using a paraben cream prescribed by my doctor for my eczema, which seemed to make the sunbeds burn my skin more. This then made it peel even faster. I wanted to tan to disguise the peeling patches but they ended up red and blotchy. Once I realised the sunbeds were causing it, I went on a self-imposed ban.
It took around six months for my skintone to even out. Even now I still have some obvious patches on my face but I’ve finally admitted to myself that it wasn’t worth it. Ironically, it was aesthetics that made me start using sunbeds in the first place and it was the aesthetics that eventually made me stop.”
With fake tan’s high-tech formulas and impressive results, there’s no excuse to use sunbeds. Here are Stylist’s favourites.
St Moriz Exfoliating Skin Primer
Create the optimum base for streak-free tanning with this primer. When used pre-tan application, it helps slough away dead skin cells and evens out the surface of skin to give you the most impressively natural-looking tan possible.
Palmer’s Coconut Sugar Body Scrub
Formulated with an incredible-smelling blend of natural and coconut sugars, this scrub gently exfoliates for a softer, smoother finish. Massage into elbows, knees and ankles to prevent tell-tale streaks.
Autograph Pre Tan Primer
Formulated with 5% glycolic acid to polish and even out skin, this will help make your tan last longer and apply more evenly. It dries in seconds, too – which is ideal when you’re short of time.
James Read Coconut Water Tan Mist
Fake tan can sometimes be quite drying on skin, but not this one. This ultra-lightweight concoction has been formulated with cosmetic-grade coconut water and promises to keep skin hydrated for up to 72 hours.
Nkd Skn Pre-Shower Gradual Tan Lotion
Apply this 10 minutes before a shower for a streak-free golden glow that develops gradually over the following four-to-eight hours. Colour will last up to seven days and promises to fade evenly.
Vita Liberata Invisi-Foaming Tan Water
Bursting with certified organic botanicals and natural extracts, this fast-drying mousse is easy to apply. Natural tanning agents and ‘odour remove’ technology also mean you definitely won’t smell of biscuits post-application.
Rimmel Sun Shimmer Gradual Tan & Toning
If you prefer a more subtle glow that’s entirely buildable, try this. Simple for even first-time self-tanners to use, the velvety texture melts onto the skin, while argan oil helps it to deliver up to 24 hours of moisture.
St Tropez Purity Bronzing Water Mousse
One application of this clear, lightweight water-to-foam formula is all you need for a natural-looking, golden tan that will last for days. Its transfer-proof, too, so your Soho Home bedsheets are safe.
Garnier Ambre Solaire BB Body No Streaks Bronzer
All the benefits of a BB cream combined with mineral pigments that adapt to your skintone for an instant, natural-looking tan that’s refreshingly easy to wash off at the end of the day.
Tan-Luxe Glyco Water Self Tan Eraser
This clever water has been infused with vitamin C and glycolic acid to create a revolutionary spray that helps break down the last remnants of fake tan, leaving skin refreshed, brighter and ready to start all over again.
Isle of Paradise Over It Magic Self-Tan Eraser
A seriously impressive glycolic acid and micellar water combination, formulated with superfoods such as avocado, chia seed and coconut oil that work to strip away self-tan while nourishing skin.
Bondi Sands Self Tan Eraser
This gentle foaming cleanser is best applied straight onto dry skin. Let it work its magic for five minutes and then watch it quickly and easily break down at least three days’ worth of old fake tan without drying out skin.