Our latest survey of sunbed operators highlights ongoing safety concerns about this industry. One operator allowed a 14-year-old to use a sunbed. Nearly half the operators we visited were also failing to comply with the industry’s voluntary standard, 7 years after it was introduced.

Our survey

Our mystery shoppers visited 60 sunbed operators. The operators included solariums (specialist sunbed establishments), fitness centres, hairdressers, beauty therapists and nail salons.

Our shoppers booked a session, told the operator it was their first sunbed, and carried out the assessment in the privacy of the tanning cubicle. They did not use the sunbed. When the session ended, they asked when they could return for their next tan.

We evaluated each session against key safety guidelines of the voluntary sunbed standard, AS/NZS 2635:2008 Solaria for cosmetic purposes.

We also sent underage shoppers to 20 sunbed operators (11 in Auckland and 9 in Wellington) to book a session. They shouldn’t have been allowed to use a sunbed because the standard restricts use to people aged 18 or over.

What we found – main survey

Thirty out of 60 operators met all 9 safety criteria we assessed. A further 5 operators met 8 criteria: our shoppers didn’t record advice about when they could have their next session so we weren’t able to assess this criterion for these businesses.

The results show an improvement on previous surveys but more than 40 percent of the operators we visited failed to implement basic checks.

Consent form: The operator should ask the customer on their first visit to sign a consent form. This form should check the customer’s age, spell out the risks associated with sunbed use, make it clear who’s at high risk and emphasise the importance of wearing goggles. Forty-seven operators complied with this guideline.

Sloanes Hair Design in Christchurch didn’t have a consent form when we visited. But as a result of our survey it has introduced one.

Skin assessment: Staff should do an assessment of a customer’s skin before the first session because certain skin types are more susceptible to UV damage. Sunbeds should never be used by people whose skin is “type 1” (fair skin, often freckled, easily burns and never tans). People who’ve been burned several times in childhood, have numerous moles, have been treated for skin cancer or are taking certain medications are also at risk. Forty-nine operators complied with this guideline.

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. All the operators provided some form of eye protection. However, Studio 31 in Palmerston North and The Beauty Room in Queenstown only provided eye stickers. The Right Cut Hair & Beauty Retreat in Palmerston North required our shopper to buy goggles because of cross-contamination risk between users.

Follow-up session: The standard recommends a wait of at least 48 hours before any follow-up session. Forty-seven operators gave the correct response.

Warning notices: The standard requires warning notices in the reception area and tanning cubicle. These notices should warn of the risks from UV light and state that 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. Forty-eight operators displayed all warnings in either the reception area or tanning cubicle – some operators displayed warnings in both.

See our survey results table for full details.

What we found – underage survey

The more you use a sunbed and the younger you start, the more you’re at risk of skin cancer. This is one of the reasons the voluntary standard recommends those aged under 18 years shouldn’t be allowed to use a sunbed.

A Head of Nature in Waitakere allowed our 14-year-old shopper to take a sunbed session (she didn’t use the sunbed though). She wasn’t given a consent form and when she asked about a follow-up session the staff member said “no problem, it looks like we could go longer next time”.

Actuelle Beauty Therapy Clinic in Manukau let our 17-year-old shopper have a sunbed with parental consent. However, when the manager found out she immediately phoned our shopper and advised there had been a mistake and our shopper wouldn’t be allowed another sunbed until he was 18.

The news was better from Wellington. All the operators refused our underage shoppers a sunbed – although Studio 128 in Johnsonville said our shopper could come back with parental consent.

See our survey results table for full details.

Making claims

In 2011 the Commerce Commission warned sunbed operators and distributors they shouldn’t make false or misleading claims about the health benefits and risks of sunbed use. This warning was a result of a joint complaint lodged by us and the Cancer Society. But 4 years on, some operators continue to make claims we’re concerned about.

Twelve operators (Actuelle Beauty Therapy Clinic, All About Tanning, Amadeus Hair & Sound Studio, Devon Beauty Boutique, Elysium Beauty, Fred & Gingers Hair & Beauty Salon, Halswell Total Eclipse Beauty Therapy, House of Beauty, Revamp Hair Co, Studio 128, Viva Health & Fitness, and Ziggs Hair & Body Shop) displayed the “Light is Life” poster.

The poster claims tanning is a natural process and UV exposure, in moderation, is a necessary part of human life. The Commerce Commission states dermatologists believe a tan is a sign of skin damage and there is no evidence that tanning on a sunbed provides natural protection against sunburn.

The poster also states there’s an increasing volume of scientific studies showing how vitamin D is beneficial for the prevention of diseases such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, coronary heart disease and multiple sclerosis. Although a sunbed will help produce vitamin D, according to New Zealand’s Consensus Statement on Vitamin D and Sun Exposure the use of sunbeds isn’t recommended because they’re associated with increased risk of early-onset melanoma. The majority of the population get enough vitamin D from incidental exposure to the sun and from their diet.

We are also concerned about the claim that sunbeds are a great way to get your controlled dose of UVB/vitamin D. The “Light is Life” poster states sunbeds give a consistent exposure, unlike the sun in New Zealand which is extremely harsh and the strength varies depending on the time of day and time of year. It is possible many sunbeds emit UV radiation that is 3 times the strength of the midday summer sun, since this is the level of UV radiation allowed under the voluntary standard. Also, a study has shown the average radiation levels emitted by sunbeds commonly used in New Zealand were similar to New Zealand’s summer sunlight, which is high to extreme on the UV index.

Sunbeds are not a safe way to tan or boost your vitamin D levels. We think it’s time sunbed operators are taken to task for making misleading claims. We’ll be making a further complaint to the Commerce Commission.

Time for a ban

In May, Parliament’s Health Select Committee recommended amending the law to make it illegal for operators to allow under-18s to use a sunbed. The amendment is contained in the Health (Protection) Amendment Bill.

We support the ban but don’t think it goes far enough. The evidence linking tanning devices to skin cancer is unequivocal. In 2009 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified tanning devices as “carcinogenic to humans” and in the highest cancer risk category. According to the IARC using a tanning device before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 percent. Simply banning under 18s is inadequate.

We have been carrying out regular surveys of sunbed operators for years. Although this year’s survey has shown an improvement in compliance with the voluntary standard, many operators are still not complying with key safety criteria. Restricting sunbed use to people 18 and over won’t remedy the problems we’ve highlighted.

Some countries have already banned sunbeds. By the end of 2015 most Australian states will have banned solariums due to Australia’s high rates of skin cancer. Brazil, which also has comparatively high rates of skin cancer, introduced a ban in 2009.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and Consumer NZ, along with the Cancer Society, the Melanoma Foundation and the New Zealand Dermatological Society, would like to see a total ban on sunbeds. We are disappointed the Health Select Committee didn’t endorse this.

We say

  • Our surveys of sunbed operators continue to find poor practices in this industry.
  • We support the Health Protection Amendment Bill but don’t think it goes far enough. We’d like a total sunbed ban.
  • At a minimum, we think it’s time the voluntary standard was made mandatory and all operators licensed.

By Belinda Castles.