Using a sunbed is a health risk to anyone. But for people with fair skin that burns easily or those under 18 the potential for lasting and serious damage significantly increases. Despite these risks, eight sunbed operators in our latest mystery shop allowed a person with fair skin to use a sunbed. Three operators also allowed an underage shopper to have a sunbed session.

This year our mystery shoppers visited 68 sunbed operators to check compliance with the voluntary sunbed standard (with the exception of Auckland, sunbed operators aren’t regulated). As part of this, we sent underage shoppers and people with fair skin to 36 sunbed operators.

Fair-skinned shoppers

The sunbed standard recommends people with type 1 skin (fair skin that burns readily or never tans) shouldn’t use a sunbed. But only eight of 16 operators turned our fair-skinned shoppers away.

Operators that allowed our shoppers to use a sunbed did some type of skin assessment. Frankleigh Park Sunbeds used a skin colour chart, Body Bronze Manukau and Studio 128 checked our shopper’s complexion, and five operators used a skin assessment form to determine the shopper’s skin type.

The Ministry of Health draft guidelines for sunbed operators include a questionnaire to determine a person’s skin type using the Fitzpatrick classification system. The questionnaire asks about genetic factors (eye, hair and skin colour, and number of freckles), reaction to sun exposure, and tanning habits. Points are allocated for each question and the total score gives your skin type. There are six skin types. A score of zero to seven is skin type 1, a score of eight to 16 is skin type 2.

Bliss Beauty Hair & Nail Spa and Configure Express Lambton Quay in Wellington assessed our shoppers as having type 1 skin but still allowed them to have a sunbed.

MegaSun Suntanning Clinic Central Auckland told our shoppers they were skin type 2. We asked for a copy of its skin assessment form and found differences to the Ministry of Health questionnaire.

The MegaSun form classifies type 1 skin as zero to four points, skin type 2A as five to seven points and skin type 2B as eight to 14 points. Our shopper was in MegaSun’s 2A category, which meant she was type 1 in the Fitzpatrick scale.

The MegaSun form also has different points for the same question. Having blue, green or grey eyes gives two points, but the Ministry of Health form gives a score of zero or one for blue, green or grey eyes, depending on how dark the eyes are. MegaSun also gives additional points for the ancestry of your parents, regardless of whether you’ve inherited any of those characteristics.

MegaSun acknowledges the differences with the Ministry of Health guidelines and is changing its form, which will include a new skin type chart.

Waikato District Health Board dermatology unit clinical director Dr Marius Rademaker says a problem with skin-type questionnaires is that the answers are always subjective.

“Looking at a person’s skin is not a particularly good way of discriminating between skin type 1 and 2, and studies have shown there are limitations to using patient-reported appearance to predict individual risk and self-reported burning,” he says. Dr Rademaker believes the tanning industry needs to take a precautionary approach to people with skin type 1 and 2.

The Ministry of Health is consulting on proposals to regulate the sunbed industry (see A tougher stand). All staff would need to be trained in how to determine skin types and set exposure times. Operators would be discouraged from allowing skin types 1 and 2 from using their services.

Region Operator[sort] Fair skin refused a sunbed[tick] Region[hidden;sort;asc]
Auckland Actuelle Beauty Therapy Clinic, Pakuranga Yes 1
Auckland Body Bronze, Manukau NoA 2
Auckland Elaines, St Heliers Yes 4
Auckland MegaSun Suntanning Studios, Central Auckland NoB 6
Auckland Solaris, Manukau Yes 8
Wellington Amadeus Hair & Sound Studio Yes 10
Wellington Bliss Beauty Hair & Nail Spa NoB 11
Wellington Classic Tan Solarium Yes 12
Wellington Configure Express Lambton Quay NoB 13
Wellington House of Beauty, Mana NoB 14
Wellington Studio 128, Johnsonville NoA 15
Wellington Water Lilly, Johnsonville NoB 16
New Plymouth Devon Beauty Boutique Yes 17
New Plymouth Frankleigh Park Sunbeds NoC 18
Opotiki Talking Heads Hair Studio Yes 19
Invercargill Bronze Connection Hair Beauty & Suntan Clinic Yes 20

GUIDE TO THE TABLE OUR MYSTERY SHOP took place in November 2015 and was funded by the Ministry of Health. OPERATORS have their location listed to clearly identify the business. FAIR SKIN REFUSED A SUNBED Achecked complexion. Bcompleted skin assessment form. Cused skin colour chart.

Underage shoppers

The more you use a sunbed and the younger you start, the higher your risk of getting skin cancer. According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) using a tanning device before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 percent.

Despite having warning notices under-18s shouldn’t use a sunbed, three operators allowed our 15- or 16-year-old shoppers to have a session.

At Natural Lines in Christchurch our shopper filled out a form, which included her date of birth. However, the staff member still allowed her to have a session without checking the form. At Configure Express in Dunedin our shopper was told she could fill out the form after she’d had the sunbed. At Sloanes Hair Design, our shopper neither filled out any form nor was asked her age.

Anigma Beauty Therapy in Palmerston North and Here for Hair in Christchurch refused our underage shoppers but advised they could come back with parental consent.

Region Operator[sort] Minor refused a sunbed[tick] Region[hidden;sort;asc]
Hamilton Solaris Tanning Yes 1
Hamilton Vivo Hair and Beauty Yes 2
Hamilton Viva Health & Fitness Yes 3
Palmerston North Anigma Beauty Therapy YesA 4
Palmerston North Capelli of George Street Yes 5
Palmerston North Configure Express Yes 6
Palmerston North Studio 31 Yes 7
Palmerston North The Right Cut Hair & Beauty Retreat Yes 8
Christchurch Accent on Nouveau Yes 9
Christchurch Body and Soul, Sydenham Yes 10
Christchurch Carlton Hair Corp Yes 11
Christchurch Here for Hair, North Redwood YesA 12
Christchurch Natural Lines No 13
Christchurch Riccarton House of Beauty Yes 14
Christchurch Shoreline Fitness Centre, New Brighton Yes 15
Christchurch Sloanes Hair Design, Bryndwr No 16
Dunedin All Tan Sunlounge - Elegance on Hanover Yes 17
Dunedin Configure Express No 18
Dunedin Hairhunters Hiz & Herz Salon Yes 19
Dunedin Stylz Hair Design Yes 20

GUIDE TO THE TABLE OUR MYSTERY SHOP took place in November 2015 and was funded by the Ministry of Health. OPERATORS have their location listed to clearly identify the business. MINOR REFUSED A SUNBED Arefused a sunbed but advised they could have one with parental consent.

Safety checks

We also sent mystery shoppers to check whether operators were complying with other safety requirements of the standard. Thirty-two out of 58 operators met all nine criteria we assessed. In previous years, we’ve seen an improvement in overall compliance but not this year. Forty-five percent of operators failed to implement basic checks (compared with 40 percent in our previous survey).

Mondaya For You Beauty Clinic in Taupo was the worst performer. It didn’t present a consent form for our shopper to sign, it offered no skin assessment, it had limited warnings in the tanning area, and inadequate eye protection. When our shopper asked for eye protection, she was given a small towel to cover her eyes. All other operators provided protective goggles or eye stickers.

The Mondaya staff member also told our shopper she could come in whenever she liked and choose how often she had sunbeds. The standard recommends at least 48 hours between sessions.

Consent form: On a customer’s first visit, the standard states they should sign a consent form. The form should cover:

  • The customer’s age
  • Risks associated with sunbed use
  • Define who’s at high risk
  • Emphasise wearing goggles.

Forty operators complied with this guideline (down from 47 last year).

Skin assessment: Staff should assess a customer’s skin as certain skin types are more susceptible to UV damage. Sunbeds should never be used by:

  • People with type 1 skin
  • People who’ve been sunburnt several times in childhood
  • Those with numerous moles
  • People who’ve been treated for skin cancer or are taking certain medications.

Forty-four operators complied with this guideline (down from 49 last year).

Eye protection: UV rays can damage your eyes and increase your risk of getting cataracts. A sunbed operator should provide goggles that form a tight seal around the eyes. Fifty-seven operators provided goggles or eyewear stickers (down from 60 last year).

Follow-up session: The standard recommends waiting at least 48 hours before any follow-up session. Fifty-two operators gave the correct response (up from 47 last year).

Warning notices: The standard asks for warning notices in the reception area and tanning cubicle. These notices should warn of the risks from UV light and state people at greater risk (under 18, or with fair skin that burns easily) shouldn’t use a sunbed. There should also be reminders to use eye protection and to not use a sunbed again within 48 hours. Fifty operators displayed all warnings in either the reception area or tanning cubicle – some operators displayed warnings in both (up from 48 last year).

Check out the full results of our safety checks survey here.

Making claims

Last year, we made a complaint to the Commerce Commission about 12 operators displaying a “Light is Life” poster, which claimed tanning was a natural process and UV exposure, in moderation, was a necessary part of human life. The poster also claimed sunbeds are a great way to get your controlled dose of UVB/vitamin D.

The commission concluded the poster contained statements that may mislead consumers and breach the Fair Trading Act.

The commission advised operators to take down the poster, so we were disappointed Studio 128 in Wellington and Halswell Total Eclipse Beauty Therapy in Christchurch were still displaying the poster. We’ll be following this up with the commission.

A tougher stand

The Health (Protection) Amendment Bill will make it illegal for operators to allow under-18s to have a sunbed. The bill is waiting to be passed into law.

When the bill was considered by select committee, a number of submitters, including Consumer NZ, thought it didn’t go far enough and called for a ban on sunbeds. They are banned in most Australian states and Brazil. The IARC classifies tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans”, which is its highest cancer risk category.

The Ministry of Health has released a consultation document on options to further regulate the industry. The ministry’s preferred option is for sunbed operators to be licensed and meet mandatory safety standards.

Our surveys of sunbed operators continue to find poor practices in this industry. Submissions on the consultation document close on 12 February. Consumer NZ will be recommending a ban.

By Belinda Castles.