Abstract BACKGROUND: The World Health Organization classified the entire ultraviolet (UV) spectrum and artificial UV tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans. Italian law has prohibited the use of tanning equipment by children under 18 years of age and by high-risk populations. OBJECTIVES: The present large survey aimed to determine the prevalence of current sunbed use in Italy and to identify user characteristics. This study identifies starting points for future national interventions to reduce the health risks of exposure to artificial UV radiation. METHODS: In 2011 we conducted a survey of 4703 people in an area on the sunny Mediterranean coast in Italy. Through multivariate logistic models we investigated the associations of sunbed use with phenotypical factors. RESULTS: Overall prevalence of sunbed use was 20%, higher among women (22% vs. 16%; P < 0·0001), and young (22% vs. 17% for age < 35 years; P < 0·0001) and highly educated people (22% vs. 14%; P < 0·0001). Subjects at high risk of melanoma used sunbeds significantly more; i.e. people with freckles (25% vs. 18%; P < 0·0001), red hair (30% vs. 19%; P = 0·01) or fair eyes (22% vs. 19%; P = 0·006). Associations were confirmed in multivariate models. CONCLUSIONS: More skin cancer monitoring is needed at tanning centres, and educational campaigns should be promoted, especially for young women and subjects at high risk of melanoma.