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'Tanning mom' controversy sparks closer look at local tanning booth misuse

Concern about misuse of tanning booths may be spreading since "tanning mom" ignited nationwide controversy when she was charged with taking her 5-year-old daughter into a booth. She denied the charge, claiming the child was sunburned from playing outdoors.

Concern about misuse of tanning booths may be spreading since "tanning mom" ignited nationwide controversy when she was charged with taking her 5-year-old daughter into a booth. She denied the charge, claiming the child was sunburned from playing outdoors.

The 2007 North Dakota Legislature passed a bill restricting minors' access to commercial tanning booths. Children younger than 14 are now prohibited from using these devices without signed permission.

"We have very few under 17 who come in," said Susan Ostlund who has owned East Side Beach in Grand Forks for 24 years. "Mainly, parents don't want to pay for it."

The browned and leathery "tanning mom" is not typical of customers in this region, say local tanning salon employees.

"There's always going to be a few who want to get super dark, to get as dark as they can," said Kelsey King, manager of iBeach 24/7 Tan in Grand Forks.

"Many of our customers come in one maybe two times a week -- to get a little bit of color -- so they're not in pain when summer comes around," she said. "A lot of them tan because it feels good; they get a boost of vitamin D."

Indoor tanning risks

There are nearly 22,000 tanning salons across the U.S., serving an estimated 28 million customers, according to IBISWorld, an industry research firm.

Several experts said there is no longer significant scientific debate that indoor tanning causes cancer. "It's a not a question of whether tanning beds cause cancer anymore. We've been able to prove that," said Dr. Jerry Brewer, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist and researcher. In 2009, tanning devices were classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, which analyzed 20 studies and found the risk of melanoma rose 75 percent in people who started indoor tanning before age 30.

"It's the sunburn you got when you were 18 that leads to the cancer you get when you're 40. That sunburn will come back to haunt you," warned Dr. Zoe Draelos, vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Ostlund said she thinks warnings about exposure to UV rays "have been carried away a little bit."

"Some people really trash tanning booths, but some of these people are the same ones who are sitting out in a boat or going out golfing and burning their skin.

"In all my years in the tanning business, I've never seen anyone get burned like you can outside," she said. "With tanning booths, you're doing it in moderation; you're not frying your skin. It's a slow tan."

King said most of the employees in her salon have been or are working to become "smart-tan certified," so they can advise patrons on proper time exposure, frequency and products to protect the skin.

"I think this really helps them to feel more comfort, to feel safe," she said.

Local tanning salons say they promote the use of protective eyewear and post warnings on health risk and potential adverse reactions that could occur in clients who are taking medications.

Despite health warnings, Ostlund's business has remained pretty even but she has noticed a couple of recent trends.

"Some customers who were tanning three or four months out of the year have cut back to tanning a couple of months," she said, a possible effect of personal financial pressures as well as health concerns.

"Some are watching their pocketbooks," she said. "And there's been so much talk about how bad UV rays are."

Kaylie Peterson, 20, who's used tanning booths for four years, said because cancer runs in her family she does have some concerns.

"But the way I look at it, you only live once... I would slow down or cut back (on tanning) if I noticed any (signs of cancer)."

King also has thought about the cancer risk, she said, "but I think, 'everything in moderation.' I use eyewear and moisture. I go tanning once a week because it makes me feel good, and helps me keep a little color."

Safer options

People who want to avoid the health risk, but still have a tan, may be contributing to an uptick in spray tan services.

Ostlund has seen a "big increase in the UV-free tanning," delivered within minutes in a stand-up, self-tan spray booth that resembles a shower. The tan lasts for four to five days.

"Women in their 50s and 60s are really starting to use it," she said. "Younger people like it for a quick tan before proms and weddings.

"It's good for people who want to stay away from UV rays."

Kaylie Peterson, who works at East Side Beach, said the UV-free tanning device is attracting more customers, she said. "Sometimes there's an hour(long) wait."

She uses it herself.

"I like it a lot. Some parts of my body don't tan."

This option solves that problem, she said, and it's good for pregnant women, who are advised to stay away from regular tanning booths.

At iBeach 24/7 Tan, King said "red light therapy," which uses no UV rays and is not intended for tanning, has proven to be popular among clients with skin disorders or scars from surgery or acne.

Available for clients of any age, the therapy tightens tissues and muscles, she said, giving the body an overall appearance of being tighter, firmer and more toned.

"It's amazing how it helps to flatten and lighten scars," she said.

"One customer, in particular, who has eczema, has told me and other employees here that she feels immediate relief from the therapy."