My Undercover Experiment: Visit to a Public Health Nightmare, The Tanning Salon



 In this blog, I pretend I’m going to purchase a tanning package for my 15 year old very-pale niece. Here’s what happened:

Wearing jogging pants, a sweat shirt and bundled up in a warm winter coat, I nonchalantly walked into a tanning salon in a small rural town in Pennsylvania.  It was a Friday, late December and around 5 p.m.  I didn’t see anyone manning the front desk, or anyone at all for that matter, so I plopped down on an uncomfortable black bench in the waiting room. I got settled on the hard surface and took out a small notebook and pen to make observations on one of the most controversial public health topics: Tanning.

The waiting room was warm, small, airy and very clean, from the polished hardwood floors beneath me to the white ceiling above. The walls were painted a dull red, and directly behind me was a framed colorful  abstract painting. I took a whiff, and the room smelled like sweet-scented lotions that instantly made me feel like I was at the beach- a welcomed aroma on the icy December eve. To my front was a large window giving view to a mostly vacant parking lot. Two black empty chairs were positioned in front of the window, adjacent to a gumball machine and a vending machine full of fruit juices and water.  The machine was buzzing softly, and the only other sound I heard was a rock song from an unseen radio.

To my left was a table with a stack of pamphlets. Words on the pamphlet that caught my eye were “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.  Coming from a long line of Irish ancestors with creamy vampire-white skin that, over time, was hijacked by all sorts of suspicious-looking crusty and bloody malignant lesions, I chuckled at the articles.


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 resembled a red metallic coffin.


My macabre musings were interrupted by a pale girl, probably in her early twenties, who plopped down in a chair behind the front desk. She was wearing a tight hot-pink shirt sporting the tanning company’s sunny and happy logo. To the right and positioned against the wall behind the front desk were two wooden shelves stocked neatly with suntan lotions and skin creams bottled in colorful and glittery plastic containers. I got up to take a closer look at the lotions. They cost between 20 and 40 dollars. I was struck by one brand in particular: A lotion in fluorescent pink and blue bottles with gold-colored tops and the words “Kardashian Glow” written in front. The lotion was the brand of the very popular reality TV stars, The Kardashian sisters.

At 5:10 PM, I went up to the girl behind the counter and cheerfully told her my name was Erin and I was there to inquire about tanning packages for my niece who was 15.  The girl smiled enthusiastically, told me her name was Laura and said, “Well 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. Vampire. Anemic. You know, ghost white,” I responded with a hint of sarcasm.

“Oh. Well…well, that’s okay. We work with all skin types. Is she looking for a dark tan or…?” Laura asked while furrowing. 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.

“Well, yes, I guess so. 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? It’s like a …thing?”

Laura vigorously nodded and assured me that I was right. “Oh yes. We get a lot of  high school kids. Especially during spring break and prom season.”

“Right. She’s not too young?”  I asked.

“No. Not at all. 15 is fine. She’ll just have to sign a waiver since she’s not 16.”

I wondered if those young 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?

“Oh. Well… maybe I could bring her back in tonight? Do you expect a lot of people tonight?”

“Oh yeah,” Laura said. “Friday nights are a busy night for tanning. The girls start early for prom season.”

For a girl that always got her prom dress the night before the prom on a cheap store’s sales rack, the notion of “starting early for prom season” was foreign to me.

“Oh, okay. Another time then,”  I said with a warm smile.  “Tell me…, I don’t see any warning signs about sun damage or skin cancer. And my niece is really young with white skin like me. Do you guys have any warning signs or pamphlets or anything at all like that?”

Laura nervously looked left then right and lowered her voice as if she was about to reveal a dirty dark secret to me.  “No. We aren’t allowed to say that. In fact…, ” she started while pointing to the infamous “Dermatologists are evil” propaganda on the waiting room table, “We’re supposed to say what is in those.”

“Oh,” I mouthed with a your-secret-is-safe-with-me nod,  “Got it.”

I decided to change the subject so Laura didn’t feel like she was continually jeopardizing her job by answering my questions.

“Do you get a lot of regulars?”

“Yeah, sure. There are some people who come in every day.”

Really? Are they walking orange peels?

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

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

I was shown a sheet of paper with 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 fifty-something, white woman with short blonde hair walked down the hall toward the counter.  She was adjusting her clothes, as if she just put them back on after tanning. I inhaled the aroma of cigarettes as she maneuvered her arms inside a furry coat. Her face gave off a florescent orange-like glow. Laura charged the woman 40 dollars. She paid and quickly left the salon while I sarcastically gave kudos to her primary care physician.

As Laura predicted, the pace of customers suddenly picked up. As each customer arrived, Laura enthusiastically greeted them, asked them to sign a sheet, asked if they wanted to buy lotion, and then directed them to an individual tanning room. Two thin, cheerful-appearing white girls, wearing gym clothes and appearing about high school age, walked in together. They both signed up to fry their stark 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 after a few snoozes in the tanning bed and not a desirable smooth dark bronze.

Next a middle-aged,overweight Hispanic woman with long black hair and big brown eyes shuffled in. She was also wearing gym clothes which led me to assume that people tend to hit the tanning salon after they work out. Soon after, a casually-dressed woman who looked to be in her early sixties came in. Her face looked orange, stressed, and flushed as she bought bottled lotion and went to “Room Four.”  Perhaps shriveling in a warm metal coffin was her stress relief?  Through the window, I watched as a warmly dressed, heavyset white woman hesitated outside the door to finish smoking a cigarette. She dropped the cigarette, mushed it around with her foot and then stepped inside the salon. Cigarettes and tanning. It’s as if public health doesn’t exist at all.

Another young, thin, pale white girl walked in. As she walked down the hall toward a tanning bed, I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt with “WV Marching Band” written on the back, which I recognized as initials for a local high school. Next a fit white man and medium-built white woman wearing matching gym clothes came in together. They also had pale skin and looked to be about college age. He was the first male customer. After them, yet another pale white girl walked in wearing a maroon sweatshirt with the words, “Holy Savior Track&Field” on the back. Holy Savior was another local high school. She smiled at me before heading to “Room Ten,” while I silently pondered why all the vampire-people willingly took up the losing battle of trying to get a tan. Meanwhile I layer on the sunscreen and dawn a wide-brimmed hat whenever I go to the beach or even just a stroll on a sunny day. Perhaps a tan, despite all of the public health warnings, is considered a trademark of beauty. It DOES look good on many people. Perhaps everyone is trying to live in the moment and not concerned with issues like cancer, sunspots and wrinkles down the road.  Or maybe they, like a lot of young people, mistakenly think they’ll be spared.

Approximately five minutes later, a husky young white male walked in. He had blonde hair, was dressed casually, and his ears and eyebrow were pierced with shiny metal objects. He told Laura that this was his first time, and he wanted to know for how long he should tan. Laura said, “I usually start people at 6 to 8 minutes.” He then inquired about the effects of tanning on his new tattoo, and Laura explained that the salon offered different lotions that protect tattoos from ultraviolet damage. She recommended a brand that was for sale in the salon, and the young man purchased it, before walking down the hall to “Room Thirteen.”  A lucky room, no doubt.


After I left the tanning salon, I was in a state of disbelief. I was also disheartened to see so many young, ghostly-white girls using tanning salons since the rate of skin cancer in young, pale people is skyrocketing. Why can’t they recognize that they are beautiful as is? All the pro-tanning propaganda was disturbing as well. Young people, by definition, are impressionable. They shouldn’t be fed booklets of lies at the expense of their health. I realize that tanning is a business and tanning salons are there to make money. But it seems unethical and wrong to not at least include a warning about fair-colored skin being more prone to skin cancer than darker skin tones, especially when the salon customers are super young. 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?

Some Facts on Tanning to go Along with my Above Under-Cover Story:  

1)  Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed every year ( Archives of Dermatology, 2010)

2) The incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, has increased by 800% in YOUNG women and 400% in men from 1970 to 2013.  The incidence of squamous cell carcinoma, a less dangerous type of skin cancer, has increased over 200% in the last 30 years (  American Academy of Dermatology) 

3) 90% of Non-melanoma skin cancers are attributed to UV rays. 86% of melanoma cancers are attributed to UV rays ( BR J Cancer)

4) 1/4 of non-Hispanic white women, including high school students and young adults between the ages of 18-34, use indoor tanning methods.  ( From a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.)

5) The use of indoor tanning devices before 35 years of age increase the risk of melanoma ( the worst kind of skin cancer)  by as much as 75%.  (CDC)

6)  One’s risk of getting melanoma increases 1.8% with each tanning session (CDC)

7)  The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends counseling fair-skinned people between the ages of 10 and 24 years to minimize their exposure to UV light.


4 Responses to “My Undercover Experiment: Visit to a Public Health Nightmare, The Tanning Salon”

  1. Haha! I would’ve loved to see you undercover at a tanning salon! So have you thought about going to one of those spray tan places? I’d be interested in seeing the research on the effects of the chemicals sprayed onto skin versus the UV light variety. Though the spray tans may not have been around long enough to adequately study the effects on skin.

  2. Rodrigo Contreras January 22, 2014 at 2:07 am

    Not everyone can be blessed with the beautiful “brown man magic.” I even take to putting on sunscreen even though I am not melatonin challenged. Cancer is no joke and it is a long arduous fight to survive. I find it difficult to believe that people voluntarily risk getting cancer for the sake of vanity. Remember ladies, we want you healthy…. And Whorange is not an attractive color on you.

    • Thank you Rodrigo for a great post. It is hard to find men who will state the facts like you did. I was one of those “tanning for the sake of vanity” gals and ended up with melanoma three times. When I look back at those photos of my “whorange” look, I cringe. I wish more men were like you and accepted women with their “natural” skin tone but it does seem that more people are becoming aware of the dangers of tanning than before which is encouraging. Continue to spread your message to your pals……all us “melanoma” gals appreciate it!!

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