TAMPA — Kate Pellegrini, 23, is a bartender at the Lodge, a new nightspot in trendy South Tampa where to be beautiful is to be tan.
"For some reason, I assume they're athletic," she says of her fellow tanners. "You picture them out playing beach volleyball or wake boarding. … It means you take care of yourself."
Does Pellegrini, who has spent the past few minutes lying in a tanning bed at SoHo Tan Spa, know:
That international experts just moved tanning beds into the top cancer risk category, right up there with mustard gas and arsenic?
That regular young sun bed users are eight times more likely to get melanoma than those who have never used them?
That a new analysis of about 20 studies concludes that the risk of cancer jumps by 75 percent when people begin using tanning beds before age 30?
Nobody interviewed Wednesday at the South Tampa spa said the risk of skin cancer would stop them from hopping into a tanning bed.
"I go to the dermatologist," Pellegrini says. "If I see anything funky, I'll go in."
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In Western culture, darkening your skin to enhance beauty and social status is a fairly new practice. Historically speaking, tan is the new pale.
Before the 20th century, light skin was a sign of high class for American and European women. It separated them from the tanned workers, who labored outdoors. Parasols were among the hottest accessories.
According to the Encyclopedia of Body Adornment, women in ancient Greece and Rome used paints and chalks to whiten their faces. In the Middle Ages, they used arsenic.
But after the industrial revolution, the trend shifted. Lower classes moved into factories and out of the sunlight. And in the 1920s, French fashion designer Coco Chanel got a little more color than she'd planned on a yacht trip to Cannes.
The French responded with an ooh, la, la, and the rest is history.
• • •
At SoHo Tan Spa, owner Robert Shanstrom holds a printout with a summary of 20 studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization.
"I truly question the authenticity of it," he says.
He says tanning beds are a source of vitamin D. That under professional supervision they're safer than tanning in the sun. That they can help avoid sunburns.
WHO dismisses those claims in its fact sheet about sun bed tanning. It says the protection indoor tanning offers is equivalent to a sunscreen with an SPF of 2 or 3.
People should supplement their vitamin D intake through diet, WHO says. Not tanning beds. They emit UVA and UVB rays, both of which can damage the DNA in cells of the skin.
Around the corner from SoHo Tan Spa, dermatologist Henry Wiley says he isn't surprised by the stark conclusions in the new analysis.
"There's been good reason for a long time to believe tanning beds are detrimental to people's skin and they're a contributor to skin cancer," he says. "You're exposing yourself to much more UV radiation than you would under life circumstances, and you're using a source that doesn't have a history in human evolution."
While he says he won't discourage people from tanning beds once in a while, for rare occasions like weddings, he strongly warns people against the regular cosmetic use of tanning beds.
Shanstrom says he gives all clients consults and bases tan times on skin type. He'll turn away those so pale he thinks they'll burn, or unnaturally darkened "tanorexics" with UV addictions.
Wiley applauds those ethics. But he says he doesn't buy the industry's claim that tanning beds are safer than spending a day in the sun, because the two are very different behaviors. In society, which is more likely: A few scheduled minutes in a tanning bed or constant sun exposure?
"Really, are you going to hang out in the sun that long?" the doctor asks. "It's hard to believe."
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The Indoor Tanning Association is furious. They're running a full-page ad in today's New York Post condemning the "hype" related to the recent categorization of tanning beds as a "Group 1" carcinogen.
Don't fall for the same old media scare tactics, the ad was slated to say.
The warnings didn't dissuade Shannon Stein from her regular tanning bed appointment. The 23-year-old Louisiana transplant gearing up to start a semester at the University of Tampa says she's been using tanning beds since before her high school prom and doesn't plan on letting this news stop her.
"I'm a pretty healthy person," she says. "I don't smoke or anything like that."
And she doesn't use tanning beds excessively, she says.
Just every other day.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.