Under the UV Sun 

Base tans are the new teen fashion must. Well, that and melanoma.

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She undresses, puts her clothes on the chair, and lies down on the plastic bed. Long white tubes above and below her will emit waves of ultraviolet radiation when she punches the start button. But first she reaches for a pair of tiny half-eggshell-shaped goggles that cover her eyelids. Unassuming as they look, the goggles are lined with retina shields that are as opaque and protective as a welder's mask.

Then Diana places a little round sticker on her hip. The sticker is a sort of skin thermometer, allowing her to monitor the changing color of her flesh whenever she turns off the tanning bed to look at it. "If I'm getting too dark," she says, "then I know to slow down."

Diana goes in for twenty minutes, which some dermatologists say is comparable to an hour under the sun. But she believes her skin can absorb UV radiation rays better than most. She has burned only twice in her life, she adds, and she tans well. "My skin can take it," she says confidently.

Soon, the white legs problem will be a thing of the past.

For the last part of her ritual, Diana reaches for a towel and puts it over her face.

"My mother worries that I'll get wrinkles."

Diana's routine is not unique. Even here, in the health-conscious East Bay, industry watchers estimate that approximately thirty thousand people use indoor tanning beds regularly. A spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association says that, outside the region known as the "Tanning Belt" -- Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois -- California is home to the second-largest concentration of salons in the United States. Tanning salons in the Golden State employ 8,500 people.

But Diana is a special kind of consumer. She belongs to a small chunk of the indoor tanning population -- between 5 and 15 percent, depending on whom you talk to -- that is in danger of losing its ability to tan indoors. Earlier this year, state Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael) wrote a bill that would prohibit anyone under eighteen from patronizing a business like Tropical Solutions. This spring, the bill passed the state Assembly, and next week it goes for hearings before the Senate Appropriations Committee. If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger eventually signs it, it's hasta la vista, baby: Approximately three thousand East Bay teenagers will be yanked out of local tanning salons. According to the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, one in three American teenage girls said they had used a tanning bed at least once in 2003, up from one in five as recently as 1996.

Who are these girls, anyway?

"They're the smart ones," suggests Terry Broadbent, vice president of operations for Tropical Solutions. "They're the ones who know the risk of the sun and know that if they come in here, in a safe and regulated business, they're not going to fry themselves out there under the sun."

Broadbent isn't the only tanning industry official who sees his product as a healthy alternative to the sun. When the indoor tanning phenomenon caught on in the United States in the early 1980s, salons were viewed by outsiders as vapid cosmetic service stations, says Indoor Tanning Association spokesman Joe Levy. More than twenty years later, indoor tanning has blossomed into a $5 billion-a-year industry, and Levy says that for the educated consumer, vanity has taken a backseat to safety as a motive for using a tanning booth. Salons now promote themselves as places to get a "smart tan" or a "base tan." Now, in an era in which most people understand that sunburns can lead to skin cancers later in life, the tanning association promotes its service as a sunburn solution: A clean, well-lighted place to tan.

"The number one thing we preach is how to protect yourself and not burn," Levy says. "How to be moderate, like anything else in life, and how to get a base tan."

The term "base tan" is the most contentious issue separating the Indoor Tanning Association and its archnemesis, the American Academy of Dermatology. Skin doctors consider the invention of the concept deceitful, created to give tanning salons a health-conscious hook for consumers. The tanning industry's thinking goes like this: If you develop a light tan in a salon before you fly off for that Hawaiian vacation, then you'll protect yourself from burning under the harsh and uncontrolled rays of the sun.

Levy says dermatologists who deny the base tan concept are living in the world-is-flat era. "They've created semantic deceptions," he says of the academy. "They say the sun will give you cancer -- and that's a semantic deception. It's like saying, 'Exercise will damage your muscles.' Of course exercise breaks down your muscles. But your body is meant to repair those muscles, and if you apply moderation, and live a healthy life, exercise is good for you. It's the same with the sun and tanning. We've learned with moderation, it's healthy for you."

To bolster his argument, Levy refers to The UV Advantage, a controversial new book by Dr. Michael Holick, a professor of medicine, dermatology, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University. In May, Holick used his appearance at the Indoor Tanning Association's annual conference to launch his manifesto that argues vitamin D, as provided naturally by the sun, is essential for good health. Holick says we have been misled by dermatologists and sunscreen-slingers to fear the sun.

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