How Do Tanning Beds Work?

If you long for a golden glow all year round one of the options you might be considering is the use of indoor tanning beds. Far less messy than creams or sprays, if you’re committed enough to visit a salon for a few sessions, you could end up with the tan you want.

a picture of a tanning bed that is switched on and glowing blue

However, indoor beds have hit the headlines in recent years, with claims that they increase the risk of cancer. Is there any truth in these allegations? We take a closer look at indoor tan beds and how they work.

Understanding The Basics

Indoor sunbeds require the user to spend some time either lying or standing in front of a series of tanning tubes which have been covered by a sheet of clear perspex. Typically there are 10-15 tubes in any bed. In order for the tanning tubes to achieve the required result, the user must stand or lie at close range.

Unlike natural sunlight, getting a tan on an indoor bed can be achieved in a matter of minutes although it can take several sessions to build up to the colour you want. If you spend too many minutes in a single session, the result will be like a regular sunburn with red skin, soreness and peeling. It’s typical to start with just 4-5 minutes per session.

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Regardless of how many sessions a person has had, eye protection must be worn every time. Failure to wear eye protection can lead to the corneas becoming damaged and cataracts may develop.

So How Do Sunbeds Work?

Tan beds work by emitting UV rays, just like the sun. Using fluorescent lamps, UV rays are produced which copies natural UV rays. Each of these lamp tubes is approximately 100-200 watts each.

The flow of UV light from each tube is regulated by a part known as a choke ballast. This sits inside the tube and controls the current. When the lamps are switched on they emit radiation which is what tans the skin, just like in natural sunlight.

Typically, indoor tanners are made up of 95% UVA rays and 5% UVB rays although this can vary somewhat between models. The user will feel as if they’re basking in normal sunlight with a pleasantly warm, but not burning hot, sensation.

As the UVA and UVB rays hit the skin and penetrate to varying depths they stimulate the production of melanocytes. These, in turn, increase the presence of melanin which is what leads to the skin tanning.

It can take several weeks to build up to a really deep tan, using the tan beds three times a week. It’s possible to notice some minor changes in the colour of the skin after one or two sessions but this will rapidly fade and won’t give users the tan they’re trying to achieve.

Understanding The Different Type Of UV Rays

There are actually three types of UV rays, UVA, UVB and UVC. Most people have never heard of the latter as it doesn’t have a role within tanning. UVC is very strong and could wreak havoc if skin were exposed to it, the ozone layer does an excellent job of blocking it.

UVA rays are the ones that are visibly noticeable and are responsible for light streaming through a window. On a sunbed, UVA rays typically have a wavelength of around 315 to 400 nanometers which allows it to penetrate through the epidermis, the upper layer of skin, and reaching the protected dermis.

UVB rays are responsible for the heat of the afternoon sun and are normally found at a wavelength of 280 to 315 nanometers, typically only reaching the upper layer of skin.

The tubes emitting the UV rays usually last around 500-800 hours before needing to be replaced. Brand new tubes can be stronger than normal so should be used with extreme caution.

Are UV Rays Safe?

Ultraviolet radiation may sound like a scary term – and you’d be right to be cautious. You won’t get the same effects as being exposed to other more lethal types of radiation, but it’s not without its own problems. Although the sun naturally emits UV rays, exposing your skin for a prolonged period has the potential to cause a plethora of health issues, particularly for the skin.

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UVA is generally associated with the ageing effects, such as wrinkly, leathery skin and sunspots. More recently UVA has been linked with the development of abnormalities on the surface of the skin which contribute to developing skin cancer.

If UVA rays don’t sound great, UVB is much worse. Accepted as being carcinogenic, exposure to UVB has the potential to increase the risks of developing skin cancer. It’s also the type of UV ray which is responsible for the painful reddening and sunburn effect.

Exposure to UV rays on indoor beds has been strongly linked to an increased risk in developing the deadly disease, malignant melanoma. Experts believe that anyone who has spent 50 hours or more on an indoor bed will have three times the risk of developing this type of skin cancer.

High-Pressure Beds

Although all indoor suntan beds work in the same way, there are low-pressure and high-pressure variants. High-pressure beds claim to offer a faster, deeper tan with fewer sessions required to maintain it.  Some manufacturers suggest that their high-pressure beds, typically designed to be standing booths, are ten times as powerful as a traditional, low-pressure bed.

a picture of standing tanning booth

However, although this may sound like a high-pressure bed reduces the exposure, the risk of developing skin cancer was four times higher compared to users of low-pressure indoor beds.

The answer to the question of “how do tanning beds work” is no different for high-pressure beds than low-pressure beds. However, how long they take to work can be extremely appealing for users who are in a hurry.

Repeated sessions will still be required to develop a tan, and it’s advisable to give your skin a break between tanning days, but in general, these types of booths will be quicker than the low-pressure beds – but there could be a serious price to pay in return for the haste.

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