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A sunbed, with lights off.
A tanning bed or sunbed is a device emitting ultraviolet radiation (typically 97% UVA and 3% UVB, +/-3%) used to produce a cosmetic tan. There are a few units called "high pressure" beds that generate primarily UVA with some UVB but these are much less common and much more expensive. Regular tanning beds use several fluorescent lamps that have phosphor blends designed to emit UV in a spectrum that is somewhat similar to the sun. Smaller home tanning beds usually have 12 to 28 100 watt lamps while systems found in salons can run from 24 to 60 lamps each consuming 100 to 200 watts.
The maximum exposure time in most tanning beds is 20 minutes, but varies from bed to bed. This is calculated by the manufacturer according to the amount of time needed to produce 4 MEDs (minimal erythemal doses). This is essentially 4 times the amount of UV that is required to produce a reddening on unexposed skin. A person would start with a much shorter session time and work their way to the maximum exposure time in about 4 weeks. Every tanning bed is required to have a "Recommended Exposure Schedule" on both the front of the tanning bed and in the owners manual. It must also list the original lamp that was certified for that particular tanning bed, and salon owners must replace the lamps with either the exact same lamp, or a lamp that is certified by the lamp manufacturer to be legally equivalent. Lamp replacement and salon compliance is regulated by the individual state in the USA, whereas the manufacturing and sale of new equipment is regulated by the federal government.
Since many factors can change the performance of any given individual lamp, the FDA requires that every tanning bed model is certified separately, and lamps themselves do not have MED ratings. Lamps do have typical TE (or Time Exposure) ratings, but these are not used for certifying beds. Session times on beds can range from 5 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on many factors.
Because of several alleged adverse effects on human health, the World Health Organization does not recommend the use of UV tanning devices for cosmetic reasons. For example, using a sunbed without goggles may lead to a condition known as arc eye.
Typical tanning lamp with F71T12 markings. This example is a 71 inch, bi-pin, 100 watt model, the most common.
Tanning beds are used for somewhat different reasons in the US than in Europe. In the US, tanning is more seasonal, where most users begin in January and stop or slow down by June. It is most often used as a way to jump start the tanning process, so that once the summer begins, they can go to the beach or enjoy other outdoor activies and already have a significant base tan build up. This is also why tanning lotions and bronzers are more commonly used in the US.
Europeans may enjoy tanning seasonally, but less so than Americans. This is due to many areas in Europe having significantly less days of sunshine than the USA, so Europeans are more likely to use a tanning bed all year long, for both the cosmetic and mood altering benefits. European tanning beds generally use a different type of lamp as well, with UVB ratings in the 1% to 3% range (using US measuring methods) whereas most tanning beds sold in the US use 4.2% to 6.5% UVB ratings, and aftermarket lamps with up to 8.5% or higher being popular. Of course, these lamps have less UVA and will produce a sunburn quicker, but many Americans seem to like them because a short session produces a "reddening", or instant gratification. These lamps actually produce a slower deep tan (but a faster base tan) that fades faster, but are simply marketed as "hotter", although technically they have about the same amount of UV but with different ratios of UVA and UVB.
While the primary reason for both Americans and Europeans to use a tanning bed is cosmetic, there are many other reasons why they are used. Because of the release of endorphins while tanning, it is common for people to tan simply because it makes them feel good. Also, most tanning beds generate a large amount of heat, including infrared, which has deep penetrating action that can relieve minor muscle aches. People who use tanning beds for these reasons will often tan all year long, typically once or twice a week.
Most salon patrons visit the tanning bed every 1 to 3 days. A typical scenario is for a tanner to begin with 3 to 5 minute exposures, working toward the full 20 minute session (for most beds) over a period of 3 to 4 weeks. Many states require a minimum of 48 hours between tanning sessions, although this is almost impossible to enforce due to a lack of manpower in the regulatory agencies. Most states do require that the timing mechanism is located outside the room where the tanning bed is located, to prevent the customer from adding minutes, and unintentionally overexposing themselves. This is recommended even in states that do not require it, as it protects the customer and removes a potential liability to the salon.
The tan produced by a tanning bed is not as deep as a tan produced in the sun. This is due to the fact that tanning beds have higher overall levels of UV than the sun on a typical day, so the exposure times are shorter than the average session spent in the sun to achieve the same amount of tan. This can cause someone with a dark indoor tan to go outside and get a bad sunburn quickly because the deeper levels of their skin have not been exposed previously, and have no natural protection above what white skin would have. It is strongly recommended that a person does NOT tan indoor and outdoors on the same day, due to the likely chance that they will get overexposed. Because overexposure actually destroys melanin, getting a sunburn will result in LESS tanning. The popular wisdom that you "need to burn to tan" or that a sunburn will turn into a tan is simply wrong, and greatly increases your chances for skin cancer later in life.
UV radiation from sunbeds, particularly UVB, may cause cancer by altering the structure of the DNA. Excessive UV radiation will cause premature aging, including wrinkles, and may have a detrimental effect on the immune system. In 2000, the US government via the National Institutes of Health published the 10th "Report on Carcinogens" and identified solar radiation, artificial sources such as sun lamps and tanning beds, in medical diagnosis and treatment procedures, and in industry for promoting polymerization reactions as known human carcinogens. It also states that the individual components of UVR, which includes ultraviolet A, ultraviolet B and ultraviolet C radiation, are listed in the report, NOT as "known", but as "reasonably anticipated" human carcinogens.
While the dangers of UVB are widely recognised, it has been convenient to regard UVA as 'safe'. UVA has less chances of burning, it has been called the "bronzing light," but it is clearly associated with inducing aging changes in the skin and in promoting the development of skin cancer. This is because UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, so any damage to the skin takes longer to detect.
There is some debate as to the safety of indoor tanning compared to tanning outside, due to the nature of how tanning beds work. Tanning beds have a higher intensity of UVA and UVB than sunlight, but because the user is exposed for a shorter amount of time, the tan does not penetrate the skin as deeply as a traditional outdoor tan. This is why tans created in a tanning bed fade quicker than an outdoor tan, and why many believe that indoor tanning creates less deep tissue damage.
Another perceived advantage is that the tanning bed creates a consistent amount of UV in a given time, whereas the amount of UV you would receive in the sun varies from minute to minute. This does not remove any risks of exposure, but allows the user to control the exact amount of UV they are receiving in a given time. Because of these issues, the common belief is that if you are going to tan, a tan inside a tanning bed is marginally safer because the UV penetrates less deeply and it is easier to regulate how much UV you are getting. Both still carry risks, particularly if the person regularly overexposes themselves to the UV.
While there appears to be a link between indoor tanning beds and cancer, the connection is difficult to make because so many people who tan indoors also tan outdoors and because indoor tanning has been significantly popular for only 20 to 25 years. None of this changes the fact that there are risks associated with exposure to UVA and UVB for everyone who overexposes themselves to the point of a sunburn.
Some have claimed that tanning beds can be a vector for infections of genital herpes. Health professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that there is no evidence of this, and that the physical possibility is extremely remote.
There are several benefits of UV light, whether it comes from the sun or an artificial source, such as a sunbed. Benefits include production of vitamin D in the skin and treatment of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Many people with acne, psoriasis, eczema or other skin disorders are regularly treated with UV to lessen the symptoms. UV exposure is known to cause the body to release endorphins, which may be why it is beneficial for SAD patients and why some people worry that tanning may actually be addictive for a few people. Tanning may also help prevent osteoporosis by increasing the body's supply of Vitamin D which in turn aids the absorption of calcium from food through the intestinal wall.
Some people confuse this potential addiction with what is sometimes called tanorexia, which is instead a condition whereby a person thinks they are too pale, and will exceed normally accepted limits of UV exposure, either indoor or outdoors, with the fruitless goal of obtaining a tan that is dark enough for their tastes. Neither tanning addiction nor tanorexia are currently accepted medical conditions and both syndromes are very rare and likely indicate some other problem. Neither condition is exclusive to indoor tanning.
Although tanning beds were initially brought to America by Friedrich Wolff in 1978, he soon patented his particular blend of phosphors (since expired) and began licensing the technology to other companies. Wolff Systems has since devoted all their resources into lamp technology and development. Some of the early adopters of the Wolff technology include ETS, LLC. (makers of the SunQuest, Sunvision, SunStar, Solaris, Rejuvasun, and Lumagen lines), SCA, Sun Industries, Inc. (makers of Suntana and SunDash), Montego Bay, Sunal. Later, Friedrich sold Wolff Systems to his brother Jorg Wolff, who was the founder of Cosmedico, Ltd., another pioneer in the tanning industry.
Initially, tanning beds were virtually unregulated in the US, but in 1988 (and later updated in 1999) the primary source of regulation at the federal level was 21 CFR 1040.20. This law was designed primarily to insure that all tanning beds sold or used in salons adhered to a general set of safety rules, with the primary focus on tanning bed and lamp manufacturers in regards to maximum exposure times and product equivalence. It is left up to each individual state to determine the regulations for salons themselves, and as such, many states are still not regulated beyond these basic federal rules.
Several companies continue to license the Wolff name and use their lamps because of the name recognition, although this has steadily diminished over the years as other lamp builders have created lamps that are arguably as good as or better. Licensing is not required to use Wolff lamps, but it is required to call a tanning bed a "Wolff System" and use the Wolff System logo, a yellow circle with horizonal bars and the name "Wolff Systems" in black. Tanning beds that use Wolff products but do not pay royalties can use only the term "Powered by Wolff," which is unique in the industry.
Most modern tanning beds have not changed much from the original systems. The lamp technology and electronics have evolved over the years, but the basic "low pressure" tanning bed has not evolved. The original electronics used in the first tanning beds, both "European choke" and magnetic, are still in use today although there are now many other choices including electronic and high frequency. The lamps are still fluorescent type, using special phosphors that create a spectum in the UVA and UVB range although there has been a great deal of advancement over the years to make the light spectrum they emit more "sun-like".
The first original tanning lamps were discovered by accident in 1903 by a German company called Heraeus who were developing lighting systems for the home and for industrial usage. These lamps were of the high-pressue metal halide variety. They discovered that the light that was developed for visible light purposes also emitted ultra-violet light. In the 1920's and 1930's they (Heraeus) first started to market and sell single lamp, self standing tanning/wellness devices. The first high-pressure tanning beds incorporating more than a single high-pressure lamp were manufactured in the mid to late seventies by companies such as Ultrabronz and JK Ergoline and in the 1980's the first high-pressure units were exported to the United States.
These units require special filter glass to remove the UVC and the majority of the UVB that is emitted and are difficult to manufacture because the alignment of the lamps is more critical than in traditional low-pressure tanning beds. They are generally large units, with a padded area to lay on or an acrylic and 6 to 36 lamps in a canopy or canopy and bench configuration, the tanning effect is much deeper and requries only a maintenance exposure of about 2-3 times per month compared to every 48 hours for regular tanning beds. They are much more expensive to operate, thus more expensive for the user. Retail prices in the $20,000 to $35,000 range are common with individual sessions costing $20 to $45, depending on the market.
A growing trend is the home tanning bed. Many people are now opting to own their own tanning system instead of going to the salon. The primary reasons are sanitation concerns and convenience. The average home system has 16 to 24 lamps, and costs $2000 to $3000, making it price competitive (over a number of years) for tanners who frequent salons regularly. This has led to an explosion of retailers that feature smaller, home style tanning beds both on the internet and in traditional retail stores.
Another trend is spray on tanning (a form of sunless tanning), using either special booths or a hand held setup similar to an airbrush. Many people who try spray on tanning often still go to the tanning salon, and use the spray on as a way to jump start the appearance of a tan, while others use it as a way to look tan while avoiding UV exposure of any kind. This is also demonstrated by the large number of indoor tanning lotions that have "bronzers" included, which is similar to the chemicals used for spray on tans, DHA.
- Sunless tanning
- Tanning lamp
- Tanning booth
- Regulations by State for Tanning Salons
- Buck-boost transformer
- Title 12 CFR 1040.20 US FDA regulations that cover tanning lamps and devices
- WHO - Artificial tanning sunbeds: risk and guidance
- How Stuff Works - Sunless Tanning
- Health Politics: The Trouble with Tanning Beds
- ITA - Indoor Tanning Association
- BBC NEWS: "Doctors' call to regulate sunbeds"
- ETS, US Based Tanning Bed Manufacturer"