It’s that time of the year again: summer, or as lady mags like to call it, bathing suit season!!! Even for those of us who have no plans to prance around in skimpy anything, the prospect of baring extra skin (if only to avoid collapsing from heat exhaustion) can inspire a sudden urge to acquire a golden glow. While there are plenty of wonderful, fast-acting "sunless" tanning options available, for some, the temptation to step into a tanning bed is hard to resist.
We know by now that "fake-baking" is terrible for you. You know it. I know it. The FDA definitely knows it. But if the many tanning salons across the country indicate anything, it’s that people are still stuffing themselves into those cancer booths.
But where are Americans most gung-ho about tanning beds? Turns out, that information is hard to track down. Each state regulates tanning bed use and licensing differently—and some don’t regulate it at all.
On top of that, no one is really researching the popularity of fake tanning across the country. Back in 2009, researcher Joni Mayer, then a professor at San Diego State University, published the most large-scale study on indoor tanning and adolescent use to date. The study found that many cities were home to more tanning salons than Starbucks (which, by the way, is insane).
But Mayer has since retired, and the two researchers who have carried her torch—Lori Crane and Nancy Asdigian, professors at the University of Colorado at Denver—have not as focused on where tanning is most popular so much as tanning patterns that exist within regions.
So in the absence of official data, we turned to the people's research tool: Google. A basic search of “tanning” helped us produce the heat map (get it?) above, revealing fake-n-bake hotbeds. As you'll see, cities including Portland, San Diego, Minneapolis, Dallas, and New York City, as well as the New England coast and Central Florida, appear to be among the major hubs.
Of course, the map doesn't indicate tanning facilities per capita—nor does it reflect all the tanning beds tucked away in residential buildings or non-tanning-focused salons—but it does provide a compelling big-picture view.
Asdigian helped put the Google map in context. “I think reasons for tanning may be different in different parts of the country,” she told Fusion. While conducting their research, she and Crane "heard more about tanning for warmth and comfort among young adults in Portland (and to a certain extent, in Boston and Pittsburgh), whereas tanning seemed more appearance-motivated and socially normative in a city like Austin.”
Looking at tanning salon hubs made us wonder: What are the most—and least—sunny cities in America? And is there any correlation between sunlight and indoor tanning hubs? While it was difficult to draw scientific conclusions, we mapped the most recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and did note a few patterns.
The numbers above represent the percentage of sunshine during daylight hours based on historical data—ranging from 7 to 112 years, depending on the city—through 2004. That year, the National Weather Service switched up its data collection scheme stopped tracking sunshine; they now more broadly monitor solar radiation.
A few observations? The Pacific Northwest is low on sunlight, but big on tanning salons. Same—to a lesser extent—with Minnesota, Atlanta, and the Northeast.
Finally, we wanted to look at possible links between tanning salons, sunshine, and skin cancer. So we mapped out melanoma statistics across the country for people under the age of 50. Melanoma, for the record, is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and it’s also the most preventable. One way to avoid it? STAY AWAY FROM INDOOR TANNING! And wear sunscreen.
One would think the sunnier a place is, the higher the melanoma rates. WRONG. Arizona is home to two of the country's sunniest cities, yet it has one of the lowest melanoma rates in the country. Conversely, Oregon is one of the country's least-sunny states, yet it's melanoma rate is sky-high.
Washington, home to famously dreary Seattle, has a notably high melanoma rate, too. Cancer researchers point out that if the Puget Sound area of Washington were its own state, it would have the fifth highest skin cancer rate in the nation. “People do find it shocking, given the weather,” said Steven Garett, special projects coordinator at the Washington State Department of Health.
The state's health department hasn't been able to pinpoint what is causing these rates. "We don't have a lot of behavioral data," Garett told Fusion. "We know some things, like 80 percent of damaging UV rays get through the clouds. We know 90 percent of [melanoma] is caused by solar radiation, indoor and out. But we don't know if people are staying outside on the cloudy days too long, or whether it's because people get excited and go out and get burnt on that first sunny day."
Just because there are clouds in the sky, you're not protected from UV rays. “Eighty percent of the damaging UV rays from the sun get through the clouds,” Garrett said.
He added that in sunny places such as Arizona or Florida, the constant presence of the sun deters folks from sunbathing: “No one wants to be outside in the sun in hundred degree weather.”
So what can we learn from all this? Well, as nice as that deeper hue looks, tanned skin is actually a sign of skin cell damage. When exposed to UV rays, your skin activates melanin as a protective barrier, and that’s what makes it darker. A tan indicates that your skin is on the defense while it tries to repair the damage. It also leads to wrinkles.
So wear sunscreen, learn to love your natural shade—and if you happen to be vacationing in Central Florida, consider investing in a spray tan so as not to feel like a vampire among bronzed gods and goddesses. But whatever, vampires are hot right now anyway.