health

The shocking underground world of Australia's illegal solariums.

Solariums might kill you, but they are far from dead.

Like smoking, asbestos, and clotted cream, solariums are one of those things older generations try valiantly to convince the younger folk were not dangerous ‘back then’. They were simply fads, hobbies, habits: normal and everyday activities that apparently nobody knew would eventually kill you.

But, like cigarettes, solariums are holding on tight to their addicts. Following the nationwide ban on solariums from January 1, 2015, (with the exception of Western Australia, who are set to join at the end of this year) there has been an explosion of dodgy backyard setups and illegal tanning beds cropping up across the country.

Salon owners have snubbed the $1,000 payback offer from the Government to turn in their beds for safe disposal, trying their hand instead of selling the beds – which are purchased new for almost $30,000 – online. Or, continuing to operate under secretive circumstances.

For men, the lure of the blue lights and quick tan are too hard to give up – regardless of the consequences.

I first heard about the illegal tanning ring from my friend Jimmy. He was looking particularly fresh and glowing. “Look at you, princess,” I said. “Got a shag last night?”

“Nope.”

“Quick visit to Dr Botox?”

“Nope.”

“You slept in?”

“Nope. I’ve been to the solarium.”

Aghast, I started to grill him. Where was the solarium? How much did it cost him? How did he find it? Didn’t he care he would give himself skin cancer? Admittedly – he looked great. But jeez, a solarium? It felt so outdated…so wrong.

“Need urgent and frequent solarium use 1-2x weekly !!” A quick check of Gumtree shows the number of people desperate to find an illegal solarium.

Scratch below the surface and the frequency of Jimmy’s story is nothing short of scary. After putting out the call on social media, I received emails from 11 different people spilling the beans on their illegal tanning routine. Of these 11, eight were men – straight men. Some were personal trainers, others were models, but mostly, these were your everyday corporate folk with no actual aesthetic need for a tan, just a driving obsession that most had been curating for decades.

One friend, Paul, lives in Melbourne and works as an accountant. He was always a tanned, healthy looking kind of guy, but I was truly surprised to learn that his tan was actually the result of a solarium bed. He told me that his solarium not only still operates in broad daylight, didn’t even get rid of the beds. Instead, they simply changed the bulbs from blue, to pink. Apparently they’re less harmful.

Me: “How would you describe the new beds?”

Paul: “I would say that it’s barely noticeable what the actual beds do…maybe it’s just a placebo effect. But I do think it works slightly nonetheless. With the old solariums I would get a huge tan line, but with these ones it’s not as pronounced.”

Me: “So why do you keep going, with the risk of cancer?”

Paul: “I feel like it does something and my skin feels better doing it. I think I’m just addicted to it. I don’t have breakouts etc when I tan also…I think they call it tanorexia! Haha.”

‘Tan Mom’ caused worldwide fury after she took her five-year-old daughter to her tanning salon for a go on the sunbed.

‘Tanorexia’ is a term usually reserved for jokes about particularly tangerine fake tans, but is very much a real and dangerous condition.

Biochemical evidence indicates that tanning addicts are addicted to an opioid release experienced during tanning. When frequent tanners took an endorphin blocker in a 2006 study, they experienced severe withdrawal symptoms, while infrequent tanners experienced no withdrawal symptoms under the same conditions.

The study revealed that tanning addicts suffer from similar withdrawal symptoms to alcoholics or smokers; that is – nausea, dizziness, and the shakes.

So, in a time where we are well aware of the addictive and even fatal results tanning beds and solariums can cause, why do we ruthlessly pursue a tan? And how on earth are these secret solariums still running?

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Australia has always celebrated a tan. Once a sign of poverty or hard labor, Coco Chanel is widely attributed for making the tan ‘chic’ after baking a little too hard in Cannes around the 1920’s. From there, women rushed to replicate her golden glow by spending hours outdoors, or faking it using the stain from tea bags. By the 1960’s, fake tan was invented, and by the 1980’s, artificial sunlamps were commercialised into solariums. During this period – the golden years of Aussie tourism – we portrayed our nation as one of endless beaches, barbecues, bikinis….and deep, bronze, tans.

My father, a doctor, grew up in an era where sun protection over summer meant nothing further than a dab of zinc on your nose – he’s since had several melanomas removed. My mother, Norwegian and already very quick to tan, recalls rubbing baby oil into her skin and laughing as they would peel off whole layers off their backs when they overdid it. They’re images that are unfamiliar to any Gen Y kid – but solariums, just as damaging, are not. In 2015, tans are still ‘chic’.

A tan is the ultimate Aussie uniform, a status symbol of the well-rested, the beautiful, the jetsetters, the relaxed. To remark, “Wow, you’re so tanned!” is the highest form of flattery.

After trawling through email after email telling me about illegal solariums, the comparison to speakeasy bars during prohibition is almost comical. Some tanning salons are visible only as unmarked doors, and require you to buzz yourself in. Most need a recommendation from an existing client. One requires you to try calling at least three times before they will accept you. They hide out in people’s garages, deep in suburbia, with several friends telling me that they would happily travel an hour each way just to visit the tanning beds.

They are wildly expensive, with some charging up to $50 for a few minutes – but even more ludicrously, they are now unmonitored. The ‘skin test’ quizzes asking how often and  how easily you burn (which, admittedly we ALL lied on), specific timers, 24-hour wait periods between sessions, and industry warnings no longer exist. It’s an unregulated wild west, preying on people with tanning addictions – some of whom haven’t gone more than a few days without tanning in years….even decades.

US woman uploaded this shocking selfie to Twitter with the caption, “If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun, here ya go!” Tawny has survived skin cancer five times.

I used to love the solarium – the hum as the blue lights blink on, the faint whiff of coconut, the immediate sting you would feel as you stepped out of the machine. I can totally understand how this is addictive. But is it worth the premature wrinkles? What about the unsightly sunspots across your shoulders and chest? The deep, chunky scars where you’ve had to have a mole removed? Or – worst of all – cancer?

Let me leave you with a few home truths.

– People who use solariums before the age of 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by 75%.

– The risk of squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) in solarium users is more than twice that of non-users, regardless of age.

– Each year in Australia, as many as 280 new melanomas, over 40 melanoma related deaths and some 2,500 new skin cancers are caused by solarium use.

Is your tan really worth it?

We want to know your opinion – would you still visit an illegal solarium? 

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