In 2012 the Ministry of Health asked the public health unit in each district health board (DHB) to visit sunbed business operators in their area to provide guidance on safety practices. So have sunbed operators raised their game? We sent our team of mystery shoppers to find out.

About our survey

Our mystery shoppers visited 60 sunbed operators in 12 centres. They booked a session and carried out their assessment in the privacy of the tanning cubicle; they did not use the sunbed. At the end of the session they asked when they could come 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. They are:

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 and make it clear who’s at high risk. Only 33 operators complied with this guideline.

Skin assessment
The operator should check your level of risk: 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, which burns readily 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 greater risk. Only 41 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. Compliance here was better than in other safety areas: 56 operators complied with this guideline.

Follow-up session
The standard recommends a wait of at least 48 hours before any follow-up session, so our mystery shoppers asked when they could come in for their next sunbed session. Most operators gave the correct response: 48 operators complied with this guideline.

Some operators replied “come in tomorrow” or “whenever you like”.

Warning notices
The standard asks for warning notices in the tanning cubicle. These notices should warn of the risks from UV light – and should also state that people at greater risk (under 18, or with fair skin that burns easily) shouldn’t use a sunbed. As well, there should be reminders to use eye protection and not to use a sunbed within 48 hours. Only 42 operators displayed all warnings.

We were pleased to see 10 operators had warning notices in their reception area as well as in the cubicle.

Our findings

We’ve been carrying out surveys of sunbed businesses each year since 2010. The results have been disturbing: in 2010 and 2011 our nationwide surveys found that fewer than 20 percent of operators met the key safety requirements.

This year we found an improvement: 33% (20 out of 60) received ticks in all boxes (see our results table below). In our last nationwide survey in 2011, only 17% (11 out of 66) met all our requirements.

But it’s still not good enough. Our mystery shoppers found operators who showed little concern for the safety of their clients. One of our mystery shoppers said: “I was handed the keys and goggles and sent to the cubicle to do it myself. I could have stayed in there as long as I liked and nobody would have known”. 4 others reported a similar experience – and 13 operators had no mention of UV and skin-cancer risks on notices or on a consent form.

Back in 2012, when our survey was restricted to Auckland and Wellington, 17 out of 20 sunbed operators were prepared to give a person with red hair and very fair skin a sunbed session. She should never have been allowed to use a sunbed (and she didn’t use it of course – she just spent her time in the cubicle filling out our survey form).

What’s missing?

Our surveys and the DHB public health units look at the safety practices of the staff (the operators), which is in section 3 of the standard.

But no one checks whether the sunbed units are properly calibrated – that is, whether they deliver a controlled UV dose which is within safe limits (this comes under section 2 of the standard: the installation and maintenance of the tanning unit). One of our mystery shoppers reported a notice that said “the bed has new bulbs therefore reduce your time by 20%”. This isn’t something a customer should be left to work out.

Sunbed regulation

The more often you use a sunbed and the younger you start using one, the more you’re at risk of skin cancer. This is one of the reasons the World Health Organization has called for governments to bring in effective laws on the use of sunbeds.

10 European countries and several states in Canada and the US have laws banning under-18s from sunbed use. In Brazil, sunbed businesses are banned. From the end of 2014, Western Australia will be the only Australian state not to ban commercial sunbeds – although its Minister for Health has recently announced plans to follow the lead of the other states.

In New Zealand, a proposed amendment to the Health Act 1956 will stop under-18s from using commercial sunbeds. This is expected to come into effect in 2014.

Our view

  • It’s not good enough that two-thirds of the sunbed operators in our survey didn’t meet all the safety guidelines we checked on.
  • It’s time sunbed operators were regulated and compliance with the standard was made mandatory – including checking that sunbeds are calibrated correctly.
  • Sunbeds are not a safe way to tan or boost your vitamin D.

Report by Bev Frederikson.