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New Yorkers Suffering Psoriasis, Depression and Other Ills Turn To Tanning

By Meredith Hoffman | February 26, 2013 8:36am | Updated on February 26, 2013 8:48am

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — After a lifetime plagued by itchy rashes on her chest and elbows, Tara Turner thought she had exhausted every possible remedy to the skin disease psoriasis that haunts her. 

Then, she discovered the tanning salon.

"This is the only thing that works," said Turner, 32, as she entered Beach Bum Tanning on West 14th Street for her self-prescribed treatment for psoriasis. "Even the natural sunlight doesn't seem to help."

Turner, who has frequented the salon near her gym for the past few years whenever her "dry flaky patches" appear, is the only one of her East Williamsburg social group to embrace tanning beds, she said — but the criticism of her friends only strengthens her resolve.

In New York City, Turner is one of a number of fervent pro-tanners who attribute their salon trips to Vitamin D deficiency, depression, and sunburn prevention. They disrobe in their private tanning rooms, and climb into a bed (or enter a stand-up booth) for, on average, between five and 15 minutes of all-encompassing bright summer heat that they claim offers respite from the frigid winter streets.

And now the New York-based franchise Beach Bum Tanning — which has 24 locations across the city and Long Island — has helped spearhead the American Suntanning Association, a new coalition of salons from Kansas City to Calgary promoting so-called "smart tanning" throughout the U.S. and Canada.

"Regular, consistent, non-burning tanning is what we're all about," said the executive director of the organization, Tracie Cunningham, from Omaha, who noted that each individual should consider his or her own skin tone when choosing how long to tan. "When you're outside it's hard to control how much [sun] you're getting, but in an indoor tanning environment, it's controlled."

And staff at Portofino Sun Center in Midtown estimate that 10 percent of first-time tanners cite “medical reasons” such as Vitamin D deficiency and psoriasis as the reasons for their visits — consistent with the view of another longtime salon owner, Richard Cacace, of Salon Champu in the East Village.

"I'd have guys come in with body acne on their backs and the beds would burn it off," Cacace claimed. "And a lot of people would come because they were Vitamin D deficient and their doctors told them to."

Former bodybuilder Charlie Defelice, 50, who visited Portofino one recent afternoon, claimed that indoor tanning protected him from potential sunburn when he's outdoors, and had been an important aid in his muscle competitions. 

"I'm here now to get a base tan," said Defelice a few days before he was moving to Fort Richie, Fla. "I've never burned in a bed, only in the sun."

And he said that "all body builders in the professionals go tanning" nearly every day when a big competition approaches.

"It brings out definition in your muscles," he explained. “The guys get so dark all you see is the whites of their teeth.”

But Cacace, who recently closed the tanning part of Salon Champu, said that tanning advocates are up against increasing legislation, scientific research and cultural sentiment against tanning, both in New York and throughout the nation. 

That's part of what the American Suntanning Association hopes to combat, providing members with federal and state lobbying, development of market research on tanning, and ramped up public relations efforts.

Still, last year, New York banned youths under 16 years old from using tanning beds, and Cacace said he shuttered his offerings because use had decreased in the city. Back in 2009, the World Health Organization classified users of the beds in its highest cancer-risk category.

"People don't tan like they used to...they started asking for spray tans instead," said Cacace. "It's not in fashion anymore."

To New York dermatologist Dr. Darrell Rigel, the “fashion” and ideas about “health benefits” for tanning should be eradicated completely.

“There is no such thing as ‘smart tanning,'” said Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Medical Center. “We call them ‘tanning coffins’ because that describes what they are.”

He added that in his medical opinion tanning beds are not the appropriate cure for Vitamin D deficiency, psoriasis or depression, and said that physicians could provide certain light bulbs that helped with those problems.

“The primary wavelength you get from the tanning bed isn’t the one that produces Vitamin D…or helps with psoriasis,” Rigel said. “And people get depressed in the winter because they get Seasonal Affective Disorder. The cure for that isn’t a tanning bed, it’s a blue light,” he explained.

When asked for a doctor who could speak on behalf of tanning's health benefits, Cunningham said that the American Suntanning Association (ASA) would not share such a contact.

"While many customers report coming to sun beds under a medical professional's recommendation it is up to them to refer their doctors to the media," Cunningham said.

"The ASA looks to provide a balanced message about UV exposure, ensuring that the science is reported in its entirety. The ASA does not advertise health benefits of indoor tanning and we believe consumers deserve the whole picture when evaluating the risks of getting too much or too little exposure to UV light."