Why sunbeds should be banned

Sunbed regulation isn't providing sufficient consumer protection.

Open sunbed.

Using a sunbed is risky for anyone. But for people with fair skin or under 18, the potential for lasting and serious damage increases.

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Despite this, four operators in our latest mystery shop of sunbed salons let our under-18 shoppers have a sunbed session and four operators let a person with fair skin, which burns easily, have a sunbed. Two operators (Hobby Hair in Auckland and Classic Tan in Wellington) let both types have sunbed sessions.

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, using a tanning device before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 60%.

Doctor inspecting skin on someone's shoulder.
Using a tanning device before the age of 30 increases the risk of melanoma by 60%.

In 2017, changes to the Health Act made it illegal to allow under-18s to use a sunbed. Despite this ban, six of the 20 operators we visited let our underage shoppers have a session (our shoppers didn’t use the sunbed but completed our survey form in the privacy of the cubicle).

Four of the six operators were in Auckland. At Hobby Hair, Vibra-Train Pukekohe and Westgate Pharmacy and Beauty Therapy, our 16- and 17-year-old shoppers were allowed a sunbed because a parent was with them and gave consent. However, the act doesn’t make this provision and they shouldn’t have been allowed to use the sunbed.

At Glow Tanning and Waxing, our 16-year-old filled out a consent form that included her age. The staff member didn’t check the form and allowed her to have a session.

Glow owner Sandra Pringle said her salon takes sunbed regulations very seriously. Ms Pringle said the staff member who allowed the sunbed was a new employee. “When we realised this incident had occurred, disciplinary action was undertaken and additional training given,” she said.

Wellington’s Classic Tan and Exodus Health & Fitness Club also allowed our 17-year-old shopper to have a sunbed. Both operators required our shopper to complete a consent form but didn’t check her age. When the Exodus staff member was asked when another sunbed session could be booked, the staff member realised our shopper was underage and said she wouldn’t be able to come back until she was 18.

Allowing underage shoppers to use a sunbed can result in a fine of up to $2000 for an individual, or $10,000 for a company. We’ve reported these operators to the Ministry of Health. In February, the owner of Elysium Beauty Therapy in Queenstown, was the first person to be fined for allowing an underage person to use a sunbed.

Salons visited by shopper under 18

Fair skin shoppers

The voluntary sunbed standard recommends people with type 1 skin (fair skin that burns readily or never tans) shouldn’t use a sunbed. All five Christchurch operators refused our fair-skinned mystery shopper a sunbed session. However, that wasn’t the case at clinics in Auckland and Wellington.

Close-up of freckled face.
Six of the sunbed salons we mystery shopped let a person with fair skin have a sunbed.

In Auckland, our shopper was refused a sunbed at three premises. However, three operators didn’t turn her away.

Hobby Hair let her have a sunbed despite the staff member saying “I know you’re quite pale so I’d suggest five minutes”. Hobby Hair owner Natalie Julie told us a full consultation was done and the shopper was classified as type 2. We asked for a copy of the skin assessment form and found differences in how it was filled out by the staff member, compared with how the shopper answered the questions when assessed by a health professional. For example, the shopper noted she had many freckles and never developed a tan. The Hobby Hair form stated she had very few freckles and sometimes shows a tan. These differences account for the different skin-type classification.

At Zero Studio the staff member let our shopper have the sunbed despite telling her “your skin is quite sensitive” and the form our shopper filled out showing she was type 1. At Sunset Tan, she was told if she changed her scores she’d be allowed to take the sunbed.

At Sunset Tan, she was told if she changed her scores she’d be allowed to take the sunbed.

It was a similar story in Wellington – six operators refused our shopper but three let her in. At Classic Tan, our shopper filled in a consent form, which included a skin assessment questionnaire. The shopper was told she’d be put on a lower strength bed for a shorter time because it was her first time. In our 2017 survey, this operator also let a type 1 shopper use the sunbed.

Studio 128’s staff member did a skin assessment and told our shopper “that’s the lowest score I’ve seen in a long time”. She advised our shopper her skin type was “very fair” so she was allowed a sunbed for three minutes. Waterlily Hair & Beauty also did a skin assessment but it wasn’t checked by the staff member and our shopper was allowed a nine-minute session.

Salons visited by type 1 shopper

Standard checks

Our shoppers also checked 40 operators’ compliance with other key safety criteria in the voluntary sunbed standard. Two of the 40 operators didn’t let our shoppers have a sunbed because their skin was too fair, so we’ve reported on 38 businesses.

Twenty-six operators (68%) met all eight criteria we assessed. That’s an improvement from 45% in our 2017 survey. However, 12 still failed to tick all the boxes.

Nelson Day Spa was the worst performer in our survey. It didn’t provide a consent form, do a skin assessment or have any warnings displayed in either the reception area or tanning cubicle. It also had no eye protection available for our shopper to use.

Nelson Day Spa didn't provide a consent form, do a skin assessment, or provide eye protection.

Exodus Health and Fitness Club in Wellington also didn’t provide eye protection or get our shopper to fill out a consent form or skin assessment (although a consent form and skin assessment was given to our underage and fair skin shoppers who visited this club). Headway Design in Mosgiel also failed to provide eye protection.

Four other operators (Frankleigh Park Sun Beds in New Plymouth, Body and Core in Christchurch, Inspiring Women in Dunedin, and Bronze Connection Hair Beauty and Suntan Clinic in Invercargill) didn’t provide consent forms or do skin assessments.

Forever Suntanz in Tauranga and Carlton Hair Corp also didn’t produce consent forms or do skin assessments. However, Forever Suntanz sent us copies of consent forms to substantiate it usually followed these guidelines. Carlton Hair Corp did give the fair-skinned shopper who visited this salon a consent form and skin assessment.

Body and Core also told our mystery shopper they only needed to wait 24 hours until their next sunbed. The standard recommends at least 48 hours between sessions.

Compliance with safety criteria

Consent form

Consentform copy

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

  • ask the customer’s age
  • explain the risks associated with sunbed use
  • define who’s high risk
  • emphasise wearing goggles.

Thirty-one operators (82%) complied with this guideline (compared with 68% in our previous survey).

Skin assessment

Skinassessment copy

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
  • people with numerous moles
  • people who’ve been treated for skin cancer or are taking certain medications.

Thirty-one operators (82%) complied with this guideline (compared with 80% in our previous survey).

Eye protection
Eyeprotection copy

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. Thirty-five operators (92%) provided eye protection (compared with 95% in our previous survey).

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
  • state people at greater risk (under 18, or with fair skin that burns easily) shouldn’t use a sunbed
  • advise people to use eye protection
  • advise people to not use a sunbed again within 48 hours.

Thirty-four operators (89%) displayed all warnings in either the reception area or tanning cubicle (compared with 85% in our previous survey). Some operators displayed warnings in both.

Compliance with safety criteria

About our survey

Our mystery shoppers visited 40 sunbed operators throughout New Zealand. The operators included solariums (specialist sunbed establishments), fitness centres, hairdressers and beauty therapists.

Each shopper 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. Two operators refused our shopper because their skin type was too fair.

Each session was evaluated against key safety guidelines in the voluntary sunbed standard, AS/NZS 2635:2008 Solaria for cosmetic purposes.

We also sent underage shoppers to 20 sunbed operators (two in Whangarei, eight in Auckland, eight in Wellington and two in Palmerston North). The Health Act restricts sunbed use to people aged 18 and over.

The standard also recommends people with type 1 skin (fair skin, often freckled, easily burns and never tans) shouldn’t be permitted to use a sunbed. We sent shoppers with type 1 skin, as assessed by a health professional, to 20 operators (six in Auckland, nine in Wellington and five in Christchurch). The same type 1 shopper went to each operator in the same region.

Time to ban

Since 2017, it’s been illegal for operators to allow under-18s to have a sunbed. In Auckland, the council has also implemented a bylaw requiring sunbed operators to be licensed and comply with minimum standards. This includes providing customers with a consent form and conducting a skin assessment.

In March, Standards New Zealand withdrew the voluntary sunbed standard (AS/NZS 2635:2008 Solaria for cosmetic purposes). This was despite submissions opposing the change from ourselves and other organisations, including the University of Otago Social and Behavioural Research Unit.

The Ministry of Health advises sunbed operators to comply with the standard and, it’s the only recognised standard we can use to assess industry practices. Our survey was complete before the standard was withdrawn.

Based on our results, it’s evident the lack of regulation means consumers don’t have sufficient protection. We’d like sunbeds banned. Sunbeds are already banned in most Australian states and Brazil, countries which also have high rates of skin cancer.

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Member comments

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Paul S.
30 May 2020
What about the responsible operators?

I'm a Kiwi guy (60s) with a skin condition, presumably inherited. Occasional visits to my local sunbed operator greatly improve this in the less sunny months. The alternative would be $50+ a pop visits to a dermatologist.
Why not penalise the dodgy operators, instead of the 70% "play by the rules" majority in your survey?
I'm very aware that any UV treatment carries a risk of skin damage, ageing, and cancer — at any age.
But surely an age check is not rocket science? Or a skin type evaluation?
Then, if operators are misbehaving and get caught (as Consumer has done many time in the decades I've been a member) they lose their "licence?"
Simple! Fair! Big-Brother-free!