Last week, my pasty white thumb landed on a peculiar status nestled within my Facebook feed.
“Anyone know a cheeky solarium around South Yarra?” my friend Jessica* posted to her hundreds of Facebook friends. Within minutes, a slew of tentative, almost cryptic comments were trickling in. An hour later the status was deleted – gone without a trace.
For those who need a quick refresher, research has found that solarium users below the age of 35 have a 59% greater risk of developing melanoma than non solarium users. While it’s legal to own a tanning bed for personal use, operating a solarium for commercial purposes was banned in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales in December 2014 (and later in Western Australia in December 2015).
Readers, I present to you illegal UV beds full of secrets. Post continues after gallery…
Being paler than a ream of Reflex paper, I was unaware that solariums are still a thing after their nation-wide ban. Do people really still use them? Where exactly are these hidden, illegal, artificial beds of radiation? Why are people so desperate for them? And how do they find them?
My eyes were wide, my mind hungry for more information.
I reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) – the agency responsible for enforcing the commercial solarium ban – for answers.
Bram Alexander, the Senior Media Advisor from the governing body, says being an owner of an illegal solarium actually comes with massive risk. The punishment for individuals can amount to $9,000, while businesses who are found guilty of commercial operation face a whopping $44,000 fine. Mr Alexander confirmed that since 2005, seven properties have been successfully raided, with a total of eight tanning beds seized in Victoria alone.
Yet, despite all the risks, some are undeterred.
I tracked down four black market solarium users, and coaxed them to reveal their darkest secrets. Here’s what I found out:
Why do you still use solariums?
Jessica: ‘To have the summer glow all year round.’
Mel*: ‘I only started going to solariums after I dated a guy who went and I was jealous of his tan and didn’t want to get fake tan in his bed! I got sick of using fake tan, I used to get a spray tan at the salon every week and it was drying out my skin and it comes off terribly!’
Eloise*: ‘Because it’s makes my skin feel and look good, it clears away any blemishes for me. It also seems to help control my psoriasis.’
Tess*: ‘My boyfriend and I are both fairly dark so we tan easily, that’s how I justify going. I know it’s bad but I just hate being pale.’
Have the prices jumped since it was made illegal?
While each of the women gave slightly different answers it seems that yes, secret solariums are about twice as expensive than they were when legal. The going rate is now about $2 for every minute in the tanning bed, but Jessica says it’s possible to “make a deal” with the solarium owner. Mel has done just that, and has haggled her price down to $1.20 per minute. I’m told the average tanning session is about 13 minutes, and each of the women go once every two-or-so weeks.
Oh, and the solarium owners all operate on a strict cash-in-hand-only policy.
But it isn’t just the cost-per-minute hike that has solarium goers doling out more clams for their tan. Tess says solarium owners are looking to rip customers off wherever they can, including ramping up the price-bracket for “essential solarium creams”.
"When the new laws passed, the owner of the solarium doubled his prices in solarium creams and wouldn't let customers use their own," Tess told me. "The bottles had to be purchased and kept at his solarium with a customer number attached. If it was found out that you were using your own cream, you would be banned from the solarium. This is probably to stop customers from ordering their own creams from the states, which they can do much more cheaply."
How do you find out where these secret solariums are?
While Eloise finds out where tanning beds are through word of mouth, Jessica uses Gumtree for prospective spots, ensuring she always goes with a friend in case the owner is "creepy". Upon delving into the classifieds myself, it appears the online profiles of solarium owners are always anonymous and picture free.
Then there's Mel, who was put in a queue before being trusted as a customer, because "they were super secretive and don't like new clients so my friend had to ask for months for them to let me in."
As for Tess, finding black market solariums has proven to be an interesting experience. 'My boyfriend found one online, but when he called up the lady refused to serve him and accused him of being an undercover police officer.'
So where are they all?!
It turns out the majority of secret solariums are at "random people's homes", which means your neighbour could be hiding an illegal solarium just next door. Apparently, "they're just parked in spare bedrooms or garages," which can make the process of undressing "a little uncomfortable".
When they're not seated alongside beds and dusty exercise machines, they're out the back of salons. So if you've noticed customers suspiciously heading to the back of your hairdresser's before, that could be why.
For Tess, the owner of her solarium moved to a rented warehouse after the ban, in fear of being caught by authorities. This means if he's caught and fined, he'll just "pack up and move elsewhere". It's now protocol his customers call when they're out the front of the building; after their appointment the owner ushers them out the back door so that neighbouring business don't become suspicious. In Tess' words: "He's dodgy as f*ck."
The DHHS says seven raids have taken place across Victoria since 2015. Post continues after video...
Do you think it’s more dodgy now it’s been made illegal? Have you had any weird/creepy solarium experiences?
Mel and Jessica say their experiences so far have been fine, although they are more wary of "creepy guys" and "hygiene problems" now.
It's a different story for Tess and Eloise.
Tess: 'Since it's been made illegal it's much dodgier. First they hiked up the prices, then they removed the plastic guards from the beds (which are there for you know, safety). They've changed the set-up so now there's nothing between you and the bulbs. So now we're told to go in for fewer minutes because it's 'stronger'.'
Eloise: 'Yes, they're way more dodgy now. Mostly, the beds are dirty - they aren't cleaned or hygienic, and they're in people's houses who you don't know! Most of the time they are really unprofessional but I guess that's the risk you take.'
While revelations that "there's nothing between [the solarium customer] and the bulbs" are troubling, the DHHS says the decision to criminalise commercial solariums has been a positive one.
"Making commercial solariums illegal has been an effective deterrent [to solarium use]." Mr Alexander assured me. "It removed solariums from the public arena such as in shopping centres [and] dramatically decreased access to the units. The lack of access is a highly effective tool in discouraging new users from considering solariums as an option and reducing solarium regulars from continuing with this dangerous practice."
While the DHHS "recognises that there are consumers that will continue to seek out solariums", Mr Alexander still believes "the number of illegal solariums currently being investigated represents a small fraction in comparison to the numbers of solariums operating legally prior to the ban."
Do you go to illegal solariums? Let us know in the comments below.
* All names have been changed.