Today, we’re ranting about tanning beds.
I was finishing a quick-and-dirty upper body workout at Planet Fitness in White Plains, NY, when I spotted them: a curious set of booths right next to the massage chairs advertised as a membership perk. For a second I thought they could be 1930s-style changing cabanas, but I was disabused of this notion as soon as I saw the sign saying, “For your safety, eye protection must be worn at all times.” Upon leaving the gym, shoulders pumped and endorphins flowing, I saw the second clue: packets of tan accelerator at the front desk, sold right next to protein shakes. I could no longer ignore the truth—this gym had tanning booths.
As an extremely pale person who burns if I think about bright sunlight for too long, the mere thought of tanning booths makes my skin hurt. I had never spotted them in the wild, and I didn’t know what to make of the situation; the notion of tanning booths as dangerous and unnecessary had been drilled into me since youth. Imagine my shock and horror when, at the very place I went to work on my fitness and practice a healthy lifestyle, I saw what I affectionately refer to as cancer chambers.
All day, in spite of the numerous other concerns on my mind, I kept thinking about those tanning beds. WHY were they in a gym, of all places? I thought that the Gym, Tan, Laundry lifestyle was a joke, a meme before memes became all the rage. Clearly, there are pockets of the world, closer to my little New York bubble than I’d like to think, that continue to equate tans with the gym, both occupying a spot on the mantle of healthy living.
Let me set the record straight, in case it was ever askew: tanning is not healthy. It just isn’t. We can get into the science of why, but this point has been belabored in popular publications and medical journals alike. Even the World Health Organization has weighed in on sunbed tanning, saying it is not advisable. The risks of indoor tanning are obvious to me, and chances are, if you’re a loyal Klog reader, you already know better. What’s more worrisome is the presence of tanning beds in the gym and what this says about our perception of health, especially as it relates to our skin.
First, I’d like to draw a distinction between indoor tanning, in which the purpose is to stimulate melanin production via focused exposure to UV radiation and picking up some extra color throughout the summer despite wearing protective clothing and using sunscreen as instructed. I’m not saying there’s such a thing as a healthy base tan, but there’s a big difference between a little bit of incidental sun exposure and concentrated radiation that happens in a tanning booth.
Think about it this way. It’s hard to keep your lungs perfectly healthy, what with secondhand smoke, pollution, and the other assaults to which our respiratory systems are subjected as part of our everyday lives. Nobody would ever claim that this kind of slow, progressive damage is equivalent to the type of damage you sustain from heavy cigarette use. Even the suggestion that you’re at the same risk of lung cancer by living in the world vs. smoking three packs a day of cigarettes seems preposterous, because it is. It’s the same thing with UV radiation. The kind you get just from being outdoors, provided you use adequate sun protection, is a completely different animal than the radiation from tanning booths. UV Radiation and Tobacco are both listed as Group 1 Known Carcinogens by the American Cancer Society. Smoking and tanning are also both addictive. Studies show that tanorexia is real, whether due to physiological or psychological factors, or a mixture of the two.
Why is skin health lagging so far behind other organ systems? Why does this notion of health persistently exclude the largest organ in the human body? Why is skin care usually relegated to the cosmetic concerns and treated as a vanity project? It makes as much sense for a gym to have tanning beds as it does for the gym to have a vending machine full of cigarettes.
This may sound extreme, but I wish that the tanning booths came with the same type of warning labels as packs of cigarettes. Before stepping in, you could see a photo of the support stocking my mom had to wear for years after getting all the lymph nodes in her thigh removed. You could look at the type of reconstructive plastic surgery needed after getting a melanoma removed from your lips. The worst part of this tanning booth in the gym fiasco was the confirmation I got from the admittedly friendly employee on the phone. Yes, she told me, they have tanning booths, but they recommend that customers spend no more than 10 minutes in them because New York State advises that tanning booths are dangerous. New York is among 42 states to regulate the use of tanning beds by minors because the risks of sun exposure in childhood and early adulthood are so well documented.
As consumers, we must demand better from the places we frequent. In the same way that smoking was banned inside of restaurants, I call for tanning beds to be banned from gyms and other temples to healthy living. At the very least, gyms have a responsibility to clearly communicate the risks associated with indoor tanning, the same way that a trainer will come up to you and correct your form if you’re at risk of injuring yourself doing squats.