Brittany Myers does not frequent tanning salons.
But the freshman, who will soon return home for Thanksgiving break, said she is worried about being “the pale one” among her group of friends. It’s enough to get her to overlook safety concerns and lie down for a few bronzing sessions before heading home for the holidays.
Her desire to deepen her skin color is common at GW, where students frequently “fake bake” for tanned complexions year-round. With a tanning salon right in Foggy Bottom, attaining a darker skin tone on campus is as easy as stopping by Relaxed Tanning on F Street for 15 minutes between classes.
Relaxed owner, alumnus and former Student Association President Kris Hart, estimated that 4,800 customers have used his tanning services since the salon opened in 2006, 70 percent of whom have been GW students.
Hart believes the popularity of tanning among young people is the result of several components. In addition to the aesthetic factor – people feel they look healthier and more attractive when they are tan – a session in a tanning bed leaves customers feeling calm and energized, he said.
Sophomore Jena Lenz said tanning helps her to de-stress. She visits a salon once every two weeks, using the bed for the maximum amount of time.
“I like to lay down and listen to music in the tanning bed. It’s relaxing,” said the “naturally fair-skinned” student, who has been tanning since she was in high school. She added that she feels healthier when she tans and believes it helps supplement vitamin D in her body.
While vitamin D is essential to maintaining proper health, Dr. Sunny Walia, an assistant professor of dermatology, warned that there are much safer ways to obtain the compound than through tanning booths.
“You can get enough vitamin D just by walking to your car or walking around campus. You can also take vitamin D supplements,” said Walia, who has worked on legislation to make tanning salons illegal.
Because any level of tan on the body is a sign of skin damage, there is no such thing as a safe tan, Walia said.
“You are getting such an intense amount of ultraviolet radiation over such a short period of time that you are causing intense damage to all of your skin cells,” she said.
According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, exposure to tanning beds before age 35 increases melanoma risk by 75 percent.
Junior Alex Somer acknowledged that tanning may not be healthy, but he said he is not overly concerned about the consequences.
“I know it’s not that good for you, but if I ever noticed a problem – like marks on my body – I would stop and get it checked out right away,” said the New Yorker. “For the moment, going tanning a few times when you’re 20 years old is not a big deal.”
Not all students are as nonchalant about the potential dangers of tanning, however.
Freshman Lauren Alperstein used to use tanning beds, but she decided that it was not worth the risk.
“I used to go until I thought, ‘Hmm, one day I’m going to get skin cancer and die,’ ” said Alperstein, who is from the District. “My dad has skin cancer. He tanned a lot back in the day, when they didn’t know it was so bad for you.”
Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, an attending physician at the Melanoma Center at the Washington University Medical Center, urges young people to steer clear of tanning beds and instead get spray tans or use tanning lotions.
“We (dermatologists) always say that the safest tan is the one in a bottle,” she said.
Hart, of Relaxed, which offers premium spray tans, often reminds his customers not to over-do their tanning habits.
“You can’t try and get super dark overnight,” he said. “Always wear eyewear, lotion and stay hydrated. Anything in excess, whether it is eating, running, drinking or tanning – either in the sun or a UV bed – can be unhealthy.”