Sunbeds emit ultra violet radiation
Some 250,000 11 to 17-year-olds in England are risking skin cancer by using sunbeds, a charity warns.
A government-funded study of more than 9,000 children found 6% had used a sunbed and in some areas of the country 40% of teenagers used them every week.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Cancer Research UK called for a ban in England on their use by under-18s.
Voluntary regulation was not working and the figures suggested legislation was needed, the government said.
Scotland has already put legislation in place - due to come into force at the beginning of December - to restrict the use of sunbeds to adults, and Wales has proposed a similar move with Northern Ireland planning a consultation on the issue.
A ban would effectively mean the end of coin-operated tanning booths.
It comes after recent research found that sunbed use before the age of 35 was associated with a 75% increased risk of developing the most dangerous form of skin cancer, called malignant melanoma.
Earlier this year the International Agency for Research on Cancer strengthened its classification of sunbeds from "probably carcinogenic" to "carcinogenic".
The latest research - the first looking at use in under-18s - showed teenagers were on average 14 years old when they first experimented with sunbeds.
Girls, older age groups and those living in deprived communities were most likely to use them.
More than 10% of youngsters in the North of England have used a sunbed compared with 4% in the rest of the country.
And results from surveys in six cities, suggested that 51% and 48% of 15 to 17-year-old girls in Liverpool and Sunderland respectively have used sunbeds, with more than 40% using them every week.
Throughout the country, a quarter of under 18s who used sunbeds did so at least once a month.
Many children and teenagers appeared to be using sunbeds without supervision, with 23% using them at home.
In tanning salons, gyms and leisure centres, one in five had been unsupervised.
Study leader Catherine Thomson, head of statistical information at Cancer Research UK, said the figures in particular from Liverpool and Sunderland were "alarmingly high".
"The fact that 40% were using them regularly is frightening.
"We firmly believe that legislation is the only way to protect under-18s - salons should not be allowed to be unmanned."
Justine Sheils, a 37-year-old administrator from Liverpool, began using sunbeds when she was 15 and was diagnosed with malignant melanoma five years ago.
"I see girls of 14 or 15 in their school uniforms going into that same salon I used to use and they come out looking like lobsters so the results of this survey are shocking but not surprising," she said.
Public health minister Gillian Merron said the report showed "worrying" levels of sunbed use.
"We are determined to protect young people from the dangers of using sunbeds.
"The report confirms that voluntary action by the industry is not protecting young people, and points to the need to introduce legislation."
Nina Goad, from the British Association of Dermatologists, said: "We would rightly be horrified if children had such easy access to cigarettes, so there is no reason why sun beds should be any different, given that we know they can cause cancer."
Kathy Banks from The Sunbed Association said the statistics were alarming as their own members and most others salons would not permit anyone under the age of 16 years to use sun beds.
She said they would be amending their Code of Practice to come into line with new legal restrictions as they are introduced.
But it was important to keep the risks associated with moderate sun bed use in perspective, she added, with the IARC classification putting it in the same category as sunlight, red wine and beer.
"Moderate UV exposure poses very little risk - excessive UV exposure poses a much higher risk."