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Tanning bed or petri dish?
ORLANDO -- Andrew Gilbert spends about $100 a month to get a bronze glow at an Altamonte Springs tanning center.
"My job is inside, and I like to have color," says the 38-year-old Winter Springs resident. "I live in Florida and I don't want to look like I live in the North."
But Gilbert won't lie down on just any tanning bed.
"As soon as you walk in, you can tell if it hasn't been cleaned," he says.
And if it hasn't been, Gilbert walks out.
He's wise to do so.
Athlete's foot, lice and flesh-burrowing mites are among the skin conditions you could get from a source most people don't usually suspect: a dirty tanning bed.
Last year, health officials failed 18 Central Florida salons during annual inspections, noting dozens of unclean tanning beds along with unsanitary practices they described as breeding grounds for disease.
Consider, says Orange County inspection supervisor David Overfield, that "you're basically just lying in someone else's sweat," an environment in which fungi and viruses can thrive.
An Orlando Sentinel review of 471 inspection records from salons in five counties found the troubles ranged from minor violations -- such as failing to post warnings -- to more serious allegations -- such as sending one client to the hospital with second-degree burns.
Doctors say people shouldn't use tanning beds at all: Their ultraviolet light promotes skin cancer, including a fatal type. But for those who want to be bronze, health officials are most concerned with those where violations put hundreds of customers at risk for skin troubles, including herpes.
"We know that people acquire some of these skin diseases from tanning salons," says Dr. Ron Shelton, co-director of the New York Aesthetic Center and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
However, it's nearly impossible to prove a person contracted a particular skin problem from any certain one of Florida's 1,702 licensed tanning salons -- diseases such as jock itch and athlete's foot are just too common to trace.
What makes contracting herpes more likely, however, is that ultraviolet light from the tanning bulbs kills immune cells that suppress viruses such as herpes. There is no cure for herpes, which causes cold sores and blisters.
All salons must buy a permit from the state Department of Environmental Health to operate, and undergo inspections usually once or twice a year, but more if a customer complains -- which they rarely do. Rather, many of the violations turn up during inspections at the highly competitive businesses. Part of the inspection involves checking the bed, which is lined with bulbs and closes like a clam.
Inspectors temporarily shut down tanning beds at several salons until the owners cleaned or repaired them. Local health departments can shut down the businesses, and levy fines, but rarely do. Most businesses fix their problems so they can stay open.
Among the most common problems:
Dirty beds or equipment. A Winter Park center with 12 beds, for example, routinely failed to soak eye protectors -- they simply sprayed and wiped, which doesn't do the job.
Overexposure. A customer at a Fern Park tanning salon reported that the salon gave her a longer dose inside the booth than is allowed, sending her to the hospital with burns and increasing her risk of skin cancer.
Poor staff training. New workers in an Orlando tanning salon didn't know that they -- not the customers -- are responsible for cleaning the grime off the tanning beds. The result was beds greasy with the oils used in tanning.
Putting tanners to the test
Central Florida's worst offender is Harry Meeks, owner of several Paramount Health clubs, according to county records.
An inspection of Paramount Health Club in Ocoee revealed cracked acrylic in October, and the beds at Apopka Paramount Health Club were "extremely dirty and need cleaning" in January, an inspector wrote.
Problems at the Longwood Paramount Health Club go back years. That club failed an inspection in 1997 for a safety hazard, two in 1998 for dirty beds and a third in 1999 for the same reason. In June 2001, inspectors temporarily ordered the business to stop tanning because staffers had not been trained in tanning, beds were not being cleaned and two beds had cracked acrylic, which increases the risk of burns.
"Overall, beds are very dirty looking," an inspector wrote.
The club passed a reinspection in July 2001 but failed again in December when not all customers had signed a required release showing they were aware of tanning precautions.
"I close it every other time I go there," says Jim Collins, an environmental specialist with the Seminole County Department of Environmental Health.
But Meeks called his Paramount businesses "absolutely the cleanest and nicest" there are.
"Every issue has been successfully dealt with, and we appreciate the patience they've had with us," he says. "We stopped and corrected every one of them, or we wouldn't still be open."
Where the problems lie
Health inspectors have a checklist of about 30 requirements for tanning salons, including proper training of staff, posted medical warning signs, timers that work and the correct size bulbs in tanning beds. But records show that unclean beds are one of the most common problems, even though the state requires tanning salons to disinfect the beds after each customer to prevent the spread of skin diseases.
At some salons, workers have used the wrong sanitizer, have failed to clean beds between uses or have relied on customers to clean beds. The brand Lucasol, the state's only approved sanitizer, kills disease-causing bacteria, while most other solutions only eliminate odor, health officials say.
In addition to common fungi and viruses, unclean tanning beds also can spread these diseases, which are either curable or run their course and go away on their own:
Tinea versicolor, a fungus that causes a brown, flaky crust and is more likely to spread if a person is perspiring. The yeast can be unsightly and itch.
Molloscum contagiosum, a viral infection that produces small, painless blisters that may, at first, resemble genital warts. It can cause serious complications in people with immunodeficiency disorders, such as AIDS.
Impetigo, a highly infectious bacterial skin infection characterized by blisters and red, oozing sores that grow larger each day.
Scabies, another highly contagious condition, caused by tiny mites burrowing into the skin, producing an itchy, red rash.
Some customers say they were shocked to learn that their salon had failed an inspection but did not want their names printed in the newspaper -- they want to keep their faux tan a secret.
Others weren't too worried. "It doesn't appear to be dirty," 32-year-old Susan Wells says of the salon Electric Beach in Lake Mary after learning that it failed an inspection last year because the sanitizing solution wasn't strong enough.
"If it appeared to be dirty, I probably wouldn't be inclined to come back," says Wells, a regular customer.
Buyer beware is the rule
Most customers keep an eye out for filth, says Indoor Tanning Association spokesman Joseph Levy.
"Every consumer survey we've ever done, the number one thing they look for is cleanliness -- over location and price," he says.
Along with clean beds, clean eyewear ranks high on the sanitary checklist, inspectors say.
Tanning salons must supply eye goggles because ultraviolet rays can damage the retina if eyes aren't properly protected, and state rules require staff to soak the eyewear in a sanitizing solution for 10 minutes between uses. The reason, Collins says, is that the mucous membrane of the eyes easily spreads pink eye, staph infections or viral diseases.
Sun Tan Center in Winter Park, which has a dozen beds, failed an inspection in December for not following eyewear rules.
"You cannot sanitize eyewear by spraying and wiping," the inspector lectured in a note.
The typical excuse for violating sanitizer standards: Staff thought the solution was strong enough.
"They don't read the directions on the bottle -- they estimate," Collins says.
At Orange Nails and Tanning in Orlando, inspectors warned staff in June last year and again in September that they must clean beds between customers.
Owner Nick Huynh says he took over the salon shortly after the June violation, and he says his shop wasn't cited in September. However, records show that Orange Nails failed a Sept. 20 inspection because of unsanitary tanning beds. It received unsatisfactory marks again in January for various other violations.
Other businesses were cited for putting customers at risk for burns by not replacing cracked acrylic on the beds -- acrylic absorbs the damaging ultraviolet light -- or by allowing customers too much time on the tanning beds, which close over the customer. "You can really get seriously hurt if the management is careless," says Ken Widergren, who oversees tanning inspections for Florida's health department.
In February last year, a woman complained to Seminole health officials that she had to go to the hospital after being badly burned by overexposure in a tanning bed at Total Eclipse Tanning and Nail Salon in Fern Park.
Ginger Flack, who lived in Casselberry at the time, says staff allowed her to tan for 10 minutes beyond the 20-minute maximum exposure time.
Inspectors reviewed tanning records that supported her claim, and reports showed that the woman and salon would work out damages between them. The salon was sold, and the former owners couldn't be reached for comment.
Staffing is a problem
Troubles often come when tanning is just a side business for the operation, says Widergren. Health and fitness centers, for example, often don't have sufficient staff, he says.
"They are managing all of the exercise equipment," he says. "A lot of time in gyms there is a sign that says you must clean the bed -- here are the towels. But that not the client's responsibility."
Another problem is the competition, Overfield says.
"This is cut-throat business," he says. "They compete with each other, they compete with the sun, and they compete with medical documents that say tanning is dangerous."
Stephanie Erickson can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5921.