My undercover visit to a tanning salon: A public health nightmare

                Dr. Stair

By Erin Stair, MD

(The following is an excerpt from an essay written by Dr. Stair. The original essay appears on her website.)

Recently, I visited a tanning salon in a small rural town in Pennsylvania.  What the salon staff didn’t know was that I wasn’t there as a customer. Rather, I was on an undercover mission to make observations on one of today’s most controversial public health topics: indoor tanning.

In the reception area, I was met with a stack of pro-tanning pamphlets with headlines that read “Natural Guide to Healthy Living” and “Why Dermatologists Have it Wrong.”  I flipped through one of the pamphlets, which was full of promotional material about tanning salons, tanning oils and how the sun causing cancer is a medical conspiracy theory. 

Also on the table was a paper schedule framed in a plastic stand that advertised the salon’s monthly specials.  There were a lot of deals. To my right was a sunlit hallway leading to individual tanning rooms in the back of the salon. I caught a glimpse of a tanning bed in one of the rooms, which eerily and ironically resembled a red metallic coffin.

In the reception area, I was met with a stack of pro-tanning pamphlets with headlines that read “Natural Guide to Healthy Living” and “Why Dermatologists Have it Wrong.” 

My macabre musings were interrupted by the arrival of the receptionist, a young woman in her early twenties. I told her I was there to inquire about tanning packages for my 15-year-old niece. The receptionist smiled enthusiastically and said, “Our packages vary with price and intensity. What kind of skin does your niece have? Has she tanned before?”

“She hasn’t.  Her skin is like my color. Very pale. Vampire-like. Anemic. You know, ghost white,” I responded with a hint of sarcasm.

“Oh. Well…. that’s okay. We work with all skin types. Is she looking for a dark tan or…?” she asked. I could tell she was racking her brain for an ideal tanning package for my niece. I almost felt guilty that I was staging this entire thing. Almost.

“She wants a tan like her other high school friends. I’ve been told that a lot of young girls, even girls with pasty white skin, are getting tans now.”

 “Oh yes. We get a lot of high school kids. Especially during spring break and prom season.”

“She’s not too young?”  I asked.

“No. Not at all. She’ll just have to sign a waiver since she’s not 16.”

I wondered if those high school girls cared at all about the fact that they were prematurely aging their skin and putting themselves at a heightened risk for skin cancer. And, if they did, were all of those cares whimsically put on the back burner for a fleeting prom-night glow?

”I don’t see any warning signs or pamphlets about sun damage or skin cancer. Do you have anything like that?”

She lowered her voice as if she was about to reveal a dirty, dark secret.  ”No. We aren’t allowed to talk about the dangers. In fact…, ” she said, pointing to the “Dermatologists are evil” propaganda on the waiting room table, “we’re supposed to say what is in those brochures.”

She stamped out the cigarette with her shoe and then stepped inside the salon. Cigarettes and tanning. It’s as if public health doesn’t exist at all. 

 “Do you get a lot of regulars?” I asked.

“Sure. There are some people who come in every day.”

 “Wow. So on average how long do people tan?”

“From 10 to 30 minutes. And there are different intensity levels.”

Then she showed me listed prices. The sessions ranged from Level 1 for $7.65 for 15 minutes to Level 3 for $18.95 per 15 minutes. I also noticed a sign taped to the counter.  It was titled, “Why Tanning is Smart.” Next to that sign was the only medical warning of any kind. It was a list of medications that should not interact with ultraviolet rays.  

Soon a middle-aged woman with short blonde hair walked toward the counter.  She was adjusting her clothes, as if she just put them on after tanning. I inhaled the aroma of cigarettes as she put on her coat. Her face gave off a florescent orange-like glow. She paid and quickly left the salon while I silently gave kudos to her primary care physician.

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The pace of customers suddenly picked up. Two teen-aged girls entered the salon and signed up to fry their beautiful pale skin that would clearly be a challenge to tan. It was the kind of skin tone that could only turn a crispy orange-red and not a desirable smooth, dark bronze.

Through the window, I watched as a heavyset woman hesitated outside the door to finish smoking a cigarette before entering the salon. She stamped out the cigarette with her shoe and then stepped inside the salon. Cigarettes and tanning. It’s as if public health doesn’t exist at all.

Another teen-aged girl walked in, and then a college-aged man and woman. He was the first male customer. After that, another pale girl walked in wearing a sweatshirt from a local high school. I silently pondered why all these pale-skinned people willingly took up the losing battle of trying to get a tan. These people ignore public health warnings and skyrocketing skin cancer rates to get a tan. Perhaps they think they won’t be a statistic and will be spared all the horrors of tanning—the cancer, the sunspots the wrinkles.

After I completed my undercover experiment, I was in a state of disbelief. I was disheartened to see so many young, ghostly-white girls using tanning salons. Why can’t they recognize that they are beautiful as is?

The pro-tanning propaganda was particularly disturbing. Young people, by definition, are impressionable. They shouldn’t be fed booklets of lies at the expense of their health.  Cigarette boxes have to display health warnings. When the rates of skin cancer are soaring, why are tanning salons not required to display a health warning as well?

Dr. Stair is a health and wellness physician and writer who lives in New York City and runs the popular health blog, She is the chief editor for the Alternative Mental Health News, and is an affiliate wellness expert for The Thayer Leadership Development Group, PTSD United, and the Jamie Isaac Anti-Bullying Foundation. She will graduate this May from New York University with a Masters of Public Health in global public health. Prior to medical school, she graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and was an Army officer.


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