Sunbeds vs. Sunbathing

One of the most commonly asked questions about sunbeds is whether there are any differences between using a tanning bed or sunbathing under the natural summer sun.

Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Newcastle University’s Professor of Molecular Dermatology, Mark Birch-Machin, gives a pretty clear and straightforward answer, stating that “sunbeds are about the same as being in the sun”. ‘About’ is definitely a very important word here, because while there are a huge number of similarities between the two, there are a couple of differences that are important not to overlook. 

But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the similarities between the two…

  • UV Light

The sun naturally emits three types of UV light: UVA (315-400nm), UVB (280-315nm), and UVC (100-280nm). UVC rays are absorbed in the upper atmosphere before they reach the earth’s surface, so when we’re outside in the sun, we’re exposed to UVA and UVB. 

Sunbeds also produce UVA and UVB light, and while this is artificial light rather than natural, a World Health Organization report confirms that this artificial light has ‘the same physical properties as the Ultraviolet rays reaching the earth from the sun’. 

Even the quantities of UVA and UVB are much the same. The natural light that hits the earth’s surface is made up of around 95% UVA - the light that absorbs deep into the skin to create a tanned appearance - and 5% UVB, which hits the outer layer of skin and is responsible for sunburn. In the early days of sunbeds, they’d emit about 98% UVA, leading to lots of bright orange faces. Today, however, most sunbeds emit UVR in the same quantities - 95% UVA  and 5% UVB - to produce very natural-looking tans. 

There is a slight difference here, however. Most sunbeds emit  UV light at similar levels to a tropical midday sun, but some can emit at even higher rates, with Harvard Medical School estimating that some can produce UVA light that’s up to 3x more intense. This means that sunbeds can create a tan in a much shorter time. A BBC report suggests that 20 minutes on a sunbed can produce the same results as four hours in the sun. 

  • Risk

There’s a common misconception that sunbeds are riskier than the natural sun, but that’s not true at all. In fact, as both produce the same type of light, the risk is the same. 

It doesn’t matter where you get your UV exposure from… UV light is UV light. And, as we all know, there are risks that come with over exposure. Whether you are choosing to sunbathe, or you’re using a tanning bed, it’s important to limit exposure times based on your own skin type, take regular breaks from tanning, and ensure that any symptoms of overexposure to the sun like unexpected skin changes are checked out by a doctor. 

The Differences Between Sunbeds & Sunbathing

One of the biggest differences between sunbeds and sunbathing is the amount of Vitamin D that the body produces when exposed to the different UV sources. Research shows that some types of UV LEDs can result in a 2.4x greater production of Vitamin D in human skin in under 1/60th of the time. Interestingly, it’s the same for mushrooms, too!

Another difference is in control. While it’s very easy to get burnt at the beach when you’re having fun, or when there’s a lack of accessible shade nearby, there is much more control when using a sunbed. The machine can be turned off as needed to better manage results and prevent any unintended and harmful consequences. Sunbeds are also predictable and available. The UK ranks in the top 10 countries for least sunshine, so there’s a benefit to being able to tan on demand, as desired. 

However, there is one area where natural sunbathing reigns supreme: the experience. While many modern sunbeds come complete with built-in entertainment features such as music and even movies, it’s always going to be hard to beat a good beach day!