There might still be an early-spring chill in the air outside, but inside a Pasadena tanning salon there is warmth, light and the slight aroma of coconut. It draws a parade of women of all ages.
Bronzed skin is not about to go out of style here — no matter how hard some push. Increasingly dire warnings about the cancer risk are coming from the world scientific community, tanning restrictions for minors have been passed at the local level and new taxes will soon be collected by the federal government.
"There are worse things you can do, like smoke or drink or do drugs," said 20-year-old Melissa Halecki, who has been coming to the Sunset Tanning Salon five days a week for a couple of months.
"This is therapeutic for me. On that 80-degree day a couple of weeks ago, everyone was out with their shorts and their white legs, but mine were tan, and it felt good."
Several women agreed that when they want to feel good, they come here instead of going for massages or shopping. Sue Gearhart, 63, said she has been a client for more than two decades and that she comes to Sunset Tanning instead of going on vacation.
"I lock myself in the room for 10 minutes, and no one bothers me," she said.
The women say they know the risks of skin cancer: Gearhart is a breast cancer survivor, though she believes she has no better chance than anyone of getting another disease. Owner Michele Lanasa hangs warning signs. And she checks to make sure everyone has protective eyewear, counsels newcomers on taking it slow and checks the IDs of younger-looking patrons.
Lanasa worries that the latest barrage of bad news will eventually take a toll on her 26-year-old business, just as the recession and some really bad and really good weather did. She and others in the tanning business say that they believe they are providing a service that adults should be allowed to use at will.
"People tell me it makes them feel good," she said. "I've never claimed it does anything but make you feel and look good."
Adults still can tan at will. So far, lawmakers have aimed only to protect minors, especially teenage girls who flock to salons during prom and beach week season. They point to the latest report from a World Health Organization agency that put tanning beds in its highest category for carcinogens and another study published recently in the Archive of Dermatology that likened the repeated use of tanning beds to an addiction.
Howard County recently banned minors from using tanning beds, becoming the most restrictive locality in the nation, according to industry data. Baltimore County considered a ban but decided to require parental consent, something the state has done since 2008.
A handful of states have banned children under 14 and required parental consent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the matter, and Congress has enacted a 10 percent tax on the beds to help pay for health care reform. It goes into effect in July.
Howard County Health Officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson pushed for the county's rule, adopted by the Howard Board of Health in November, after years of trying to talk his daughter into stopping her tanning salon visits.
Since the new requirements have been in effect, the county has conducted stings and found few violators. Beilenson said this is evidence that the salons want to provide a safe service and aren't having too much trouble complying with the law.
"I'm not necessarily opposed to adults who want to tan, though I think it's foolish," Beilenson said. "But we don't allow parents to consent to Marlboros or vodka for their children, and I think this is the same thing."
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, who testified in favor of Howard County's ban, said scientific evidence shows that tanning damages skin, that damage is cumulative and that it could lead cells to change and become cancerous later in life. Young girls who tan have a 75 percent increase in their risk of developing melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, he said.
Lichtenfeld said many tanning salons switched from mostly ultraviolet B rays to mostly ultraviolet A rays because they burn less frequently. But the UVA rays penetrate deeper and potentially cause more cell damage. And UVA rays do not provide much vitamin D, which many people lack and believe tanning beds supply.
Further, he said, many people seek a "base" tan at the salon before heading to the beach. But he said the base tan provides the equivalent SPF of 2 to 5, far below necessary protection.
"This doesn't mean everyone gets skin cancer, but tanning sets the process in motion," said Lichtenfeld, adding that 2 million cases a year are now diagnosed. "There's a sense out there, particularly among young women, that a tan means you're healthy. But gradually that may be changing."
Some salons are responding with alternatives, including spray booths that bronze without any rays. But the industry has been fighting attempts to bar young adults from tanning beds. John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, said the decision should be left to parents.
He said the group supports parental consent for minors and doesn't have a problem with bans on those 14 and younger. But members find fault when legislatures try to tell 17 year olds they can drive, serve in the military or marry with parental consent, but cannot tan.
"What are they going to do next, ban them from the beach?" he said. "There is no comparison to cigarettes and alcohol. We think the risks have been overstated. This is something that is enjoyed by a lot of people."
There are alternatives to tans from tanning beds, which take many visits to build and which experts say can lead to skin cancer later in life. Alternatives include bronzing lotions and self-tanning sprays, which require no sun and tan skin more immediately than tanning beds.
Professionals say these products are much higher-quality, and a lot less orange in color, than previous generations. There are some danger of allergic reactions and potential long-term harm from chemicals used in these and many lotions and cosmetics.
At the drugstore, brands such as L'Oreal and Jergens are available in gel, lotion and spray forms for about $6-$9.
Several local salons offer spray-on tans in a booth called Mystic Tan, and a session costs $25-$30 — about the same as two weeks' worth of time in a tanning bed, which salons say is enough for a base tan. With spray-on tans, a mist is applied over several seconds, and the tan begins to show hours later, lasting about a week.