Ryan Baker, a director of operations for Palm Beach Tan, ushers me through the narrow, pastel hallways of one of the chain's salons in Washington, D.C. It's a tiny place, squeezed into a strip mall between a Chipotle and a beauty parlor. But in a pinch, some see it as a mini-vacation—a dose of artificial sunshine when life’s too busy, or the outside world too cloudy, for the real thing.
Some customers pop in and out of the rooms in 10 minutes, Baker says, while others take their time, luxuriating for a half-hour or more as they primp and apply lotions in the full-length mirrors.
One of the higher-end beds looks like a spaceship, or at least an 80s rendering of one. After the tanner climbs underneath its shiny convex cover, he can blast his preferred music by hooking an iPod up to the built-in speakers. The inside is climate-controlled, and every few minutes it releases a puff of an aromatherapy scent. There are even vertical "beds," for those who prefer not to give up on their standing-desk lifestyles even while soaking up UV rays.
Baker repeatedly reminds me that these amenities are to be enjoyed only while hewing to the "golden rules of tanning:”
1) Always know your skin type. Palm Beach uses dermatologists' Fitzpatrick scale, which ranges from "very pale" to "dark brown." People on the paler end of the spectrum should bake for just a few minutes at a time.
2) Take it slow to reach your "cosmetic objectives." Build up a tan by using the beds for short periods over a series of sessions.
3) Apply professional tanning lotions before and after your tan. These don’t protect against UV exposure, but they help with dryness.
4) Always wear eyewear. He tips his head back to demonstrate how one would never sunbathe on a beach with one’s eyes open. Nor should one do this while inside a 63-lamp iBed Swing Commercial Tanning Bed.
He sums it all up with two words: "Tan responsible."
I point to poster of a blond model relaxing on a white-sand beach, her skin like a moist Werther’s caramel. I ask Baker how long he thought it would take for me to look like that.
"Can you tan?" he says, surveying my ghostly pallor. He suggests I think about getting a spray-on instead.
It's this kind of diligence that Baker thinks is why people keep coming to Palm Beach Tan, even as the tanning industry as a whole has shrunk by more than a fifth over the past four years. It’s a period that's been marked by a federal tanning tax, a slew of state-level age restrictions, and an increasingly alarming series of public-health warnings about the dangers of UV exposure.
Even though tanning beds still make up the bulk of the indoor-tanning business, spray tanning is now the only part of the industry that's growing. While big, bronze empires like Palm Beach will probably weather the regulatory storm, hundreds of "mom and pop" tanning places around the country have shuttered.
"It's sad," he says. "Tanning is a fun thing. In our industry, we all know each other, and we just don't want to hear things like that."
Baker looks like a fit soccer dad in his khakis and gingham shirt embroidered with a Palm Beach logo. He's a company man, having worked his way up from a part-time sales associate job in Texas to his current role, in which he oversees 97 stores on the East Coast.
His face is the color of a newborn fawn, a result of what he calls "cocktail tanning"—a combination of sunbed- and spray-tanning. I kept trying to tell myself that he, as well as the gingersnap-hued women behind the counter, would look just as good if they were their natural beige-white.
I asked Baker if he thought people would ever stop tanning entirely.
"No," he said. "Because I'm a beach person. Just going to Virginia Beach or Ocean City, there are people out there trying to get a tan."
And that's the next big challenge for health agencies. Despite how rapidly the warnings and taxes and regulations have beat back the sunbed industry, there’s still something a little glamorous about being tan.
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According to one popular theory, tanning caught on by accident. In the early 20s, Vogue magazine ads were still peddling bleaching creams that claimed to "get rid of tan." Doctors in the early 1900s thought sun exposure caused nervousness and insanity. In his 1905 book The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, Dr. Chas Edwards Woodruff wrote, “The American girl is a bundle of nerves. She is a victim of too much light."
But in 1929, French fashionista Coco Chanel inadvertently spent too much time in the sun while vacationing in the French Riviera. She shrugged and proclaimed, "A girl simply has to be tanned." That year, there was a sharp uptick in the number of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar articles trumpeting the allure of darker skin. While a Jantzen swimsuit ad from 1927 depicted models sitting under umbrellas and wearing wide-brimmed hats, one from 1929 showed them "frolicking in the sun without sun protection," as one study in the American Journal of Public Health found.
In the 1930s, France introduced paid vacations, and both Europeans and Americans increasingly took up outdoor hobbies. Before long a subtle tan became a symbol of youth, leisure, and upward mobility.
In the early 1970s, the German scientist Friedrich Wolff was using ultraviolet lights to analyze the impact of sun exposure on athletes. He noticed an intriguing side effect: The men took on a golden hue. Wolff turned the oddity into a selling point, and the first tanning beds were born.
Appearances are the primary motivator for "laying out:" Surveys have consistently shown that people find tans attractive. One D.C. woman I spoke with was eager to point out that she is by no means a "tanorexic." At the same time, she added, "from a woman's perspective, it's almost the same thing as make-up. [A tan] can help camouflage certain flaws. I have dark circles under my eyes, and it kind of evens out my skin tone a bit.”
When Baker talks about the reasons why people tan, he circles back to what he calls the "look good/feel good,” as though the two states are inseparable.
Other than the look good/feel good, he says customers usually cite "I'm going on vacation, or I'm going to a wedding and I have to wear this dress, or Halloween's coming up and I have a costume that I need to look tan in."
Tanning has become so ingrained, in other words, that "looking tan" is in some ways its own rationale. You need to look tan in that dress. That is the kind of dress one looks tan in.
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Ultraviolet radiation is unique among carcinogens in that it both helps you and, with enough exposure, can kill you. The sun's (or sunbed's) rays spur the production of vitamin D. They also bombard skin cells, mutating DNA and causing wrinkles. Crucially, UV radiation also summons a specific type of immune cell that prompts cancerous growths. Far from protecting against sunburn, a "base tan" is a sign that skin damage has already occurred. According to the CDC, people who tan are more likely to get sunburned.