Part of paleo is about experimentation and discovery.  This winter I started experimenting with going to the solarium….better known as the tanning salon.  That’s right, I went to the tanning salon.  Really courting medical controversy here.  So here’s why I went.

My initial reason was to get a base layer and avoid a sunburn in Mexico.  I had signed up for the MovNat course in Mexico in mid-January, and it seemed prudent to get a base layer to make it less likely I would burn in Mexico.  Sun burns are what cause the most damage to your skin and most increase your chances of skin cancer.  My sessions were purposefully short duration (<7 minutes) and low intensity, and so I needed to do a few of them before I got a noticeable tan.

Healthy Vitamin D levels decrease your overall chances of getting cancer.  My reading of the literature indicated that 1) it’s extremely difficult to get sufficient Vitamin D from food and even supplements, 2) the deadly forms of skin cancer are more rare than generally thought, 3) they don’t seem connected to sun exposure per se (sun burns are the more likely culprit), and 4) and your higher chances of getting skin cancer are far outweighed by the cancers you avoid by getting enough Vitamin D.  Use of a tanning bed — with the right UV frequencies — has also been shown to increase Vitamin D levels.  As for a few more wrinkles as I get older, that seems to be true, but I just don’t care.  For an excellent overview of what we know about the sun, Vitamin D, and cancer, watch this video by Dr. Michael Holick at BU.  (He doesn’t endorse tanning.)

My mood improved immediately.  I don’t know what to say, it just did away with the winter doldrums.  The first time I went was in early January in New York City.

Now, would it better to get moderate sun exposure?  Yes.  Would it be better to have a UV solution in winter that mimicked natural sun light? Yes. Is it a good idea to go to the tanning salon to get burnt to a crisp in 10 minutes?  No, of course not. 

Who could benefit most from going to the solarium?  People with dark skin.  Dark-skinned people are adapted for an equatorial environment with enormously high sun exposure all year round.  It’s as if they are wearing high SPF skin block all the time.  They need more sun to generate the same amount of Vitamin D as a fair-skinner person.  So black people who live in high latitudes or who live near the equator but are covered up all the time are particularly at risk.  Bad news for burqas — blocking out the sun is causing rickets and osteoporosis in Middle Eastern women.  From the abstract:  

"Despite ample sunshine, the Middle East (15°-36°N) and Africa (35°S-37°N), register the highest rates of rickets worldwide. This is in large part explained by limited sun exposure due to cultural practices and prolonged breast feeding without vitamin D supplementation in the Middle East, and by dark skin colour and calcium deficiency, rather than vitamin D deficiency, in several countries in Africa. Both regions also have a high prevalence for hypovitaminosis D, the latency disease for osteoporosis, and the main focus of this discussion."
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the first tax enacted as part of the health care plan was actually counter-productive?  I’d be willing to wager that the 10% tax on tanning salons caused a net decrease in the health of African-Americans.  (Not sure how many actually go.)
Anyhow, here’s to a little experimentation.  I’m sure I’ll have a few more posts on this taboo subject in the days to come.


21 Responses to “Why I went to the tanning salon this winter”

  1. Alishahndra says:
    • I am extremely pale, partially due to genetics and partially because up until I went gluten free, 5 minutes of sun exposure would lead me to get sun poisoning all over my arms and hands so I used to cover myself up, all the time (so the only people paler than I am are pretty much albinos). 
    • However, I grew up (in MA) around people who abused tanning (like most of my dance teachers…and while not everyone did, it is really easy to spot the temporarily-super dark-skinned, blonde-haired white girls in winter). 
    • Also, I am an actor, and a certain amount vanity is a side effect of the job, so for me, tanning is just an invitation to get pre-mature wrinkles…which will prevent me from working, so tanning doesn’t really fit my lifestyle. 
      • (That being said, I am moving to L.A. in July and am trying to figure out how to stay healthy while not damaging my skin, so if anyone has any suggestions, other than sunscreen, large hats, UV protection on my car windows, parasols, opera length gloves while driving, etc. I’d be greatful…) 
    • What I want to comment on is the culture of tanning salons.  While I have never been to one, I can say that there’s a pretty funny rant on the best of Craig’s List that has told me enough to get a fairly good idea of what types of people go to tanning salons:  (Like all good rants, it’s not entirely safe for work and it’s not for everyone.)  
    • I recognize that this one particular salon owner’s experience may not be typical across the board, but I think that the types of people who tend to go to tanning salons aren’t (in general, I do know specific exeptions to the rule) the types of people with whom I want to associate.
      • I don’t mean to sound like an elitist snob, but there’s a difference between the type of vanity as self-maintenance and vanity as part of some cult of tanning…perhaps I am too biased as I have an excessive amount of memories of dance teachers looking like aliens from a race of european featured, super dark skinned blonde girls…and let’s not even talk about around recital time…spandex, sequins, occasionally racy dance moves, blue eyeshadow and admonitions against wearing underwear under your costumes (while performing said racy dance moves in front of your parents. Um, WHAT? …talk about the hyper-sexualization of children…eh, moving on.)
      • Also, I am a clean freak and claustrophobia, nudity and using a communal tanning bed, cleaned or not, kind of freaks me out, just to admit my bias.  Perhaps if there were a place that felt more like a spa and less like a place to be encased in a coffin of light? 
  2. Alishahndra says:

    Also, John, thank you for being honest with your experimentation; it is refreshing.

  3. Allan says:

    As I understand it, vitamin D is produced by the UVB rays from the sun.  These are also the type of rays that cause sunburn.  Thus most tanning beds try to reduce the amount of UVB rays and instead focus on producing UVA.

    You did mention that the tanning bed should have the "right UV frequencies", but I think you should place more emphasis on this because the majority of tanning beds are purposely skewed toward the wrong type of UV light.

    • John says:

      Yes, you’re exactly right. I did my research beforehand and they kept trying to sell me UVA beds (the premium stuff), and I went with one that was a mix of the two.

      The industry is a total mess and geared to tanning, not healthy UV exposure that approximates the sun.

  4. Matt says:

    According to this video on Vitamin D  from Univ. of Calif.  TV by a Dr.  Holick , it’s impossible for anyone to synthesize vitamin D in the winter months north of Atlanta.

  5. Rahsaan says:
    Thanks, John. As I told you last month, an ignorant doctor told me that my vitamin D level was too high at 110 mg/L. Absolutely ridiculous. As black person living in NYC, It’s lucky that they are so high (via supplementation).
    Luckily, Dr. Macaulay completely disagreed with the former on that issue! Thanks again for the referral!
     I would not be surprised if we learn that blacks’ abysmal D levels (over 95% of all U.S. blacks are deficient) are tied to the soaring rates of cancer and diabetes seen by that population. In fact, the entire population, in general as most Americans despite skin color are deficient.
    • word to the wise says:

      just so you know–there IS such a thing, an important such a thing, as too much vitamin D. vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, which therefore can be stored in your fat tissue for a really long time before it gets out of your system. while you’re correct to note that many people of color are deficient in vitamin D, having excess is not in your interest either. while having excess water soluble vitamins like B or C means you’ll just pee out the extra, extra fat soluble vitamins can geniuinely do you harm. excess vitamin D can mess with your calcium metabolism, causing a variety of issues including constipation, kidney stones, muscle weakness, and bone pain. so while i do applaud your intentions to stay healthy, don’t ignore your doctor’s advice–there can be too much of a good thing.

  6. Rahsaan says:

    By the way, I always feel immediately better when I’m in the sun all day and suffer so terribly during NYC winters (since I was a kid) that I’m strongly thinking of moving somewhere else.   (I thrived during an undergrad study abroad in Salvador, Brasil.)

  7. Gattman says:

    This is pretty common in AK during the winter because the beds put people in a better mood.

  8. Chris Frank says:

    You are my hero.  You should change your name to John " I am so manly I can make going to the tanning bed look masculine" Durant.  I’m making an appointment at the ‘solarium’ today.

  9. Pinkhistorycat says:

    I recently moved from Texas to NJ. While not much of an avid "tanner" I am outside quite a bit in the garden and running and Texas is noted for thier intense sun….so was I tan..yes.  My first winter in NJ was a myriad of sensations: I was estatic about the snow, loved the cold, enjoyed a new running challange ( I looked like a ninja in my Under amour gear..that or a bank robber), but i was also having a tough time dealing with the lack of sunshine. I found myself crying a bit more than normal (ugh hate crying) and eating poorly and  I do mean poorly. NJ  is not know for thier healthy eating habbits and I enjoyed it. Long story short..wound up gaining weight and feeling lousy. Went to the doctor and he suggested some "photo therapy"… I said  tanning…he said no "photo therapy"….whatever.  It worked wonders. In about a week, I felt better, cried much less and stopped eating all the junk. Do I plan to do it next winter…maybe, if i find myself sniffing into my cheesesteak again.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I"ve been eating paleo (unknowingly for 10 years), unfortunately the last 5-6 weeks of every year I eat organic rapadura sugar, milk, nuts…all the things I normally don’t eat.  So, during these years, on january 1st, my body is recovering from itchy skin (eczama?), danderuff, zits, wrinkles, stomach aches, PMS and B.O.  That’s my favorite.

    My point in writing had nothing to do with what I just said other than I wanted you to know that I do know about this lifestyle.  Concerning the sun exposure; I am dark skinned but when I cut all that you listed in the peleo chanllenge, my skin seemed to have a natural sunscreen.  And, I havent experienced this yet but I just read a book called "The day light diet."  It’s about not eating but once or twice a day and only during daylight hours.  The author said that sunglasses have been proven? to eliminate our natural sunscreen and when he stopped wearing them, he stopped getting sunburned. 

    Thanks for your journey, I’ve been working on my peeps for some time now and every year I convert people.  I saw you on The colbert report.  He joked about not finding a date or girlfriend or being single?? don’t remember  but that’s when I looked you up because I haven’t met any guys willing to eat like this yet.  Your out there though so I know there are more.

  11. Sara says:

    Once I started eating Paleo, or Primal… or whatever you want to call it – May of last year, I noticed that I was not getting sunburnt after long periods of exposure to the sun – I’m talking 8+ hours of Canoeing on the river, every weekend. What’s extraordinary about this, is that I am VERY fair skinned – and have always gotten burnt very easily, even with sun tan lotion on… my discovery of this happened when I forgot to bring suntan lotion with me on a Canoe trip… much to my surprise I did not burn!

    I’m not sure what EXACTLY has caused this, but I’d heard in the past that foods that are colored red or dark red reduce your risk for sunburn… now I had just started drinking 2-3 glasses of merlot a night, and eating lots of strawberries… so I wonder if this is the culprit? Either way, it’s fantastic!!!

  12. Katie says:

     Hi John! I was just curious if you used lotion when you went to the tanning salon.  If so, what lotion did you use? 

  13. fak fak says:

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  14. Crystal says:

    I know this is late to blog on this but I recently came across it. I wanted to say thank you for presenting an honest analysis. The tanning industry has evolved over the years and the technology has increased. We have evolved to the term MODERATION and we are more educated than ever in our industry on Safe Tanning. Just like anything we are plagued with the good bad and the ugly. One day coffee is good and then next it is I VERY much respect people, like you, doing their due diligence. We are in business like anyone else, but I think you will find the majority of salons do the right thing and utilize safe tanning practices. Cancer rates are significantly higher as you go North to areas with fewer months of sun (Per Dr Holick, Dermatologist referenced above). Vitamin D is crucial. Thank you again for your research and article.

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