Indoor tanning: a burning issue

It's such an obvious question: with an estimated 350 days of sunshine per year, why would anyone even go to an indoor tanning bed in the UAE?

Colette Hirzel, the manager of Hollywood Tans in Dubai.
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It's such an obvious question: with an estimated 350 days of sunshine per year, why would anyone even go to an indoor tanning bed in the UAE?

Yet they do, with group-buying sites even offering discounted sessions to both new salons and those long established.

Salons in western countries such as the US and UK continue to operate as well, although they are long past the height of their popularity. They have also developed a terrible reputation - and not just because counted among their devotees are "Tan Mom", a 44-year-old New Jersey woman who has been banned from more than 60 outlets due to an addiction to the indoor beds, and the cast of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore's dedication to the "Gym Tan Laundry" way of life.

Dermatologists and other health-care professionals argue that tanning bed lights are a public health hazard because they emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation to produce a cosmetic tan in speedy amounts of time. The United States Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer have both classified the type of UV used by these devices as carcinogenic.

As reported in The National on Tuesday, Dubai Municipality opposes the beds and plans to introduce guidelines bringing their use and operation in line with international regulations before the end of the year. The changes would limit use to those who are over 18, recommend a maximum number of sessions and promote awareness of the harmful effect of tanning machines. Abu Dhabi Municipality is considering draft regulations for tanning beds in line with international standards as well.

Still, all the warnings - not to mention the abundance of natural sun - are not about to deter tanning enthusiasts in the UAE and the business people who cater to them.

Simone Leistner, a 28-year-old German personal assistant living in Dubai, explains that she uses the beds in the summer when it is too hot to tan outdoors.

"I use them about three times a year, so I don't worry about cancer," she says. "I personally think it is more dangerous to be in the sun for long stretches of time. Using a tanning bed is quick and you get a tan all over your body. I definitely prefer tanning at the pool or on the beach, though, as it's much nicer, but only during the spring, autumn and winter. It is way too hot to be outside in the summer."

Anke Groenewald, a 26-year-old birthday planner from South Africa who uses the beds once to twice a week in the winter and occasionally in the summer, echoes this sentiment.

"The sun, in my opinion, will cause just as much damage," she says.

Colette Hirzel, the lone tanning salon manager among several contacted who agreed to speak on the subject, dismisses the issue. She says the beds and lights she uses at Hollywood Tans in Dubai, which has been operating for seven years, are safer than the sun.

"If you like to tan, it is much safer to tan with our booths, as we have the UVB and UVA radiations controlled," she says. "You won't ever burn or have any side effects. The sun burns you and gives you white patches - we don't."

The argument that tanning beds are safer than the sun is a common one from those in the business, but health experts say it just is not true.

"Contrary to the popular belief that a tanning bed provides a safer alternative to sun exposure, they have a similar damaging effect on the skin," says Dr Ashraf Reda, a specialist dermatologist and laser specialist at Welcare Hospital in Dubai. "The latter is a well-known cause of skin cancer including the deadliest skin cancer, melanoma. In addition, tanning beds can cause premature ageing of the skin manifested as increased wrinkles, loss of elasticity of the skin and blotchy, brown stains."

Besides the risk, it's hard to imagine why anyone would pay for an indoor tanning session in a sun-abundant country such as the UAE. Groenewald said it's a common question. "Everyone I know asks me why I use the sunbeds in Dubai, as there is so much sunshine here," she says. "In the winter months, I find it too 'cold' to tan. Secondly, the beds save time and I find that they give a better colour than the sun."

The tanning beds also enable her to get a complete tan all over her body, which is impossible to do in the sun.

"The main advantage of the beds, to me, is the fact that you can tan all of your white areas... it evens the colour of your whole body," Groenewald says. "You also don't have the hassle of going red then brown."

Meanwhile, Hirzel argues that most people who are still committed to tanning are too busy to sit by the pool every weekend, turning to the beds because they are convenient.

"People living in Dubai are here to work," she says. "All day at work means no time for the long hours at the beach. And then it is either too hot to handle the sun in the summer, or too cold in the winter. During the weekend, a lot of people like to chill, sleep late or do nothing - they don't want to bother with the sticky beach. Our tanning beds are fast, private and you get an amazing, even tan. Even the colour itself is more bronze than a normal suntan."

Not every person who has used a tanning bed is sold on the idea, though. Menna Massoud, a 24-year-old film student living in Dubai, tried a tanning booth once and says she will never use one again.

"I was curious and figured trying something new is always a welcomed change," she explains. "But I couldn't relax in the booth. The heat felt unnatural, I could feel my skin protesting immediately and I felt irritated and unhealthy for a few days afterwards. It was also pretty boring just standing there. I'm claustrophobic, so tanning outdoors isn't as unnerving, and while there are dangers in basking in the desert heat, I feel healthier after spending some time in the sun."


According to the World Health Organisation, the following individuals should never use sunbeds:

• Under 18s.

• People who have very fair skin.

• People who burn easily or tan poorly.

• People with a lot of freckles or moles.

• People who have had skin cancer or have a family history of the disease.

• People using medication that could make their skin more sensitive to UV rays.

Fake it safe

Sun or salon, there is no safe way to tan the skin other than faking it with alternative methods, according to Dr Ashraf Reda, a specialist dermatologist and laser specialist at Welcare Hospital in Dubai.

"Natural sunlight or a tanning bed tan is indicative of skin damage," he says. "There is no such thing as a 'safe tan'. Some sunscreen lotions with low sun protection factor are labelled as 'suntan lotion'. They claim sun protection and tanning at the same time, which is not true. To get a tan colour, 'sunless tanning' is a safe alternative to sun exposure or using tanning beds. Self-tanners are creams, gels, lotions and sprays that are applied to the skin.

"Professional spray-on tans are also available at many salons."