Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
An email for The Tanning Shop, dated 6 March 2016, said “Use our UV to get YOUR
Vitamin D!” and “Exposure to UV light is the most powerful way to promote Vitamin D
production and using a responsible tanning programme is by far the most efficient!” At the top of the ad was a picture of a tanned model in a swimming costume on a sunny beach with large text imposed on the image that said “Vitamin D”.
The complainant, who believed that sunbeds produced predominantly UVA and not UVB, which was responsible for generating vitamin D production, challenged whether the ad was:
1. misleading because it implied that using sunbeds was the most efficient way to boost vitamin D production; and
2. irresponsible because it encouraged the use of sunbeds to improve vitamin D levels.
1. The Feel Good Group Ltd t/a The Tanning Shop provided an NHS study that claimed that vitamin D supplementation could prevent acute respiratory tract infections. They also provided a number of studies and academic reviews that they said supported the ad‟s claim that sunbed use was the most efficient way to increase Vitamin D production.
The first study, which assessed the efficacy of outdoor sunlight in the production of Vitamin D, stated that an individual would need to stay outside for up to three hours in winter months to metabolise vitamin D, subject to certain variables such as body type and age. The Tanning Shop said that this showed the importance of outdoor sunlight in the production of vitamin D and, by that token, sunbeds would be similarly efficient. Another study supported the assumption that UV exposure helped to increase vitamin D levels during periods of reduced sunlight.
An academic review provided by The Tanning Shop quoted another study which stated “adults who frequented a tanning salon had robust levels of 25(OH)D (Vitamin D) … and had higher bone mineral density in their hips compared with healthy adults who did not go to a tanning salon in Boston, Massachusetts, at the end of winter”. The review quoted another study which also stated “It was estimated that if all the people in the United States were to double their solar UV-B irradiance to raise their serum 25(OH)D levels to 45 nanogram/milliliter, the net result could be as many as 400,000 reduced deaths compared with only 11,000 increased deaths from melanoma and skin cancer”. The study claimed that if adults exposed themselves for a fraction of the time that it would take to develop sunburn they would receive “enough” vitamin D. Another academic review said that while increased sun and UV exposure could increase the amount of cutaneous malignant melanoma, it could
elevate vitamin D levels which would result in fewer cancer deaths overall.
The Tanning Shop also quoted research that said using vitamin D supplements was less effective for certain types of medical conditions and that the lack of sunlight was linked to the production of vitamin D. The last study provided by the Tanning Shop suggested that sub-sunburn sunbed use was effective at increasing the vitamin D level, versus taking oral vitamin D supplements.
The Tanning Shop said that during UK winter months there was not enough sunlight to synthesise the recommended levels of vitamin D which made sunbeds the most efficient way to obtain this vitamin. They added that individual factors would affect the ability for the body to synthesise vitamin D, including age, health status, lifestyle and location.
2. The Tanning Shop said they required their lamp suppliers to provide detailed information of the percentage of UVB rays emitted by the tanning lamps in comparison to UVA rays. They said UVB, as in sunlight, made up a small percentage of lamp output.
The Tanning Shop said sunbed users could adjust the ratio of UVA and UVB rays emitted by the sunbed, that their tanning beds were checked once a month, and sunbed session-length was determined by assessment under the Fitzpatrick Phototyping scale (a numeral classification for skin colour used to estimate the response of different types of skin to UV light).
The Tanning Shop said they restricted session-length and frequency so the risk of overexposure was significantly reduced. They also said that users were able to use the equipment in complete privacy and could expose as much or as little of their skin to UV output as they wanted.
1 & 2 Upheld
The ASA noted that The Tanning Shop made prominent reference to vitamin D in a photo at the top of the ad. Text beneath that said “Use our UV to get YOUR Vitamin D!” In the body text the ad then said “Exposure to UV light is the most powerful way to promote vitamin D production and using a responsible indoor tanning programme is by far the most efficient”. The ad promoted “a personal tanning plan” and explained that their packages were valid for 12 months, so were “a deal for all seasons”. There was no mention of any health risks associated with sunbed use. We considered those elements created the overall impression that using a sunbed was the most effective way of increasing vitamin D levels versus natural sunlight, diet or supplementation, and that consumers should therefore use sunbeds to increase their vitamin D levels. We also considered that the name of the business, the image of the tanned woman on a beach and the references to “our UV” and a “deal for all seasons”, implied that the primary purpose of the business was to enable people to achieve a visible tan all year round and that increasing vitamin D levels could be achieved safely at the same time.
We noted that The Tanning Shop had provided a number of studies and academic reviews to support their claim but we considered that few of those papers made an explicit reference to the use of sunbeds as a means of synthesising vitamin D – most mentioned either the use of vitamin D supplements or sunlight alongside adequate sun protection as a means of increasing vitamin D levels.
None of the studies that The Tanning Shop provided explicitly stated that sunbeds should be used to safely increase vitamin D levels. Some of them said that was an option, but then suggested other alternatives such as food supplements. In addition, a number of the studies that mentioned how sunbeds could be used to boost vitamin D levels also acknowledged there was a risk of melanoma and skin cancer associated with sunbed use.
We noted that the ad referred “to a major new NHS-backed study”, but that the NHS Choices website stated “a tan is your body's attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of UV rays. Using a sunbed to get a tan isn't safer than tanning in the sun. It may even be more harmful, depending on factors such as, the strength of UV rays from the sunbed, how often you use a sunbed, the length of your sunbed sessions, your skin type - for example, whether you have fair or dark skin, your age …” and that “using sunbeds is not a recommended way of making vitamin D”. While the ad did not say the NHS backed the use of sunbeds to improve vitamin D levels we considered its inclusion in the ad implied that the claims made in the ad would not be inconsistent with NHS advice.
One research paper that said sub-sunburn sunbed treatment was more effective in increasing vitamin D levels than vitamin D supplementation. The study also said that sunburns were a well-known risk factor for melanomas and the “common occurrence of ‘sunbed burns’ among users is underappreciated and clearly an important risk factor.”
We considered that the association of melanoma and skin cancer with exposure to UVA and UVB would affect consumer’s decision about whether the product was truly “effective” given the health risks involved.
We considered that the overall impression of the ad was towards the goal of achieving an overall tan, not as a means of safely increasing vitamin D levels.
While we accepted that vitamin D had some known health benefits, that in winter months people in the UK may not get sufficient vitamin D from sunlight and that sub-sunburn sunbed use could increase vitamin D levels, we noted that use of commercial sunbeds for the purposes of tanning had known risks of over-exposure to UV and therefore to skin cancer. Sunbeds, therefore, were not recommended by the NHS as a source of vitamin D. In the context of an ad for a commercial tanning salon which promoted year-round personal tanning but did not mention any of the risks of sunbed use, we considered the claim that using sunbeds was the most efficient way to boost vitamin D levels was misleading and that the ad irresponsibly encouraged the use of sunbeds to improve vitamin D levels.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 3.1 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 12.1 (Medicines, Medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told the Tanning Shop not to imply that sunbeds were the most efficient way to increase vitamin D levels. We also told them not to encourage consumers to improve their vitamin D levels by using sunbeds.