TikTok's Tanning Bed Comeback Should Be A Warning

Considering Gen Z’s existentialism and love for nostalgic vices, the rise of tanning bed content online is a recipe for trouble.

Jak Howell was 16 when he first used a sunbed. Based in Wales — where there are laws banning minors from using tanning beds until they are 18 years old — Howell discovered that the sunbed shops near him had no employees at the time. “I just went in and put my money in the machine, like a parking meter,” he says. Howell soon started using a sunbed four or five times a week, until he was diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 21. He now uses his platform online to warn teenagers against the dangers of sunbedding. Considering that an estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and that studies proving a link between sunbeds and skin cancer have been around for over a decade, you’d think most of Howell’s warnings would be common knowledge. However, a trend is emerging on new online platforms where young people are posting and promoting the use of sunbeds.

On TikTok, the hashtag #SunBed has over 570 million views. There are people sharing tips for whitening your teeth while in the tanning bed, making videos about not caring about the risks, and even popular influencers like Victoria Paris admitting to recent tanning bed use. This content lives alongside a growing number of wellness content online from people who are misguidedly convinced sunscreen is bad for you. The combination of factors, says Howell, will make teenagers more vulnerable to starting the dangerous habit. “As a teenager, I believed I was invincible,” he says. “Seeing this content from other influencers really frustrates me, because it says in the title of their job that they are influencing people.”

Sherry Pagoto, a professor at the University of Connecticut and clinical psycologist, says that currently sunbed usage is at an all-time low thanks largely to legislation (44 states currently ban or regulate indoor tanning by minors). “When people adopt tanning bed use, it’s usually during their teenage years and then can kind of continue throughout their twenties,” she says. “But even using tanning beds for a short period does increase your risk for melanoma — so it’s something that you don’t want to start.” The concern then, is that sunbed content online could encourage TikTok’s young audience to try it in the first place. After all, the largest proportion (25%) of US TikTok users are 10 to 19 years of age.

The indoor tanning industry came to the US in the late ’70s and by the ’80s tanning beds were all the rage. In the 2000s, while the overly tanned look and trends like “tan tattos” were popular with the help of indoor tanning, there was also somewhat of an awakening to a greater awareness the dangers. For a while afterward it seemed as if indoor tanning had dropped out of popular favor. Pagoto says this timing may mean that Gen Z missed much of the information about the dangers of skin cancer. “They are the generation who has used tanning beds the least. It sometimes happens that trends that stopped because of health issues make a comeback, so then the health issues also make a comeback,” she says, comparing it to the current measles uptick. “There was a time when everyone got a measles vaccine and no one thought anything of it, then measles was gone. And then time goes by and people start questioning.”

Sabrina (whose name has been changed for anonymity), a 24-year-old in New York, first went into a tanning bed when she was 16. “We were going on a tropical vacation and my mom was like ‘You have to get a base or you will burn and have a miserable time’,” she says. “Then, in college, the gym where I had a membership had free tanning beds, so all of my roommates would do it, and I would just do it, too.” After stopping for years, Sabrina says, she’s recently started again because of her new gym membership where they also have a tanning booth. This, perhaps, provides a lesson on how the accessibility of sunbeds can influence people’s habits.

For Sabrina, getting a tan is tied to how she’s feeling about herself, particularly about her body, in a current moment. Considering that the tanning industry has a long history of fatphobic rhetoric — associating a tan with activeness and thinness and the long-discussed idea that tanning has a “slimming effect” — the current “thin is in” culture shift away from body positivity could end up pushing more people into tanning beds. “If I’m feeling ugly, I will focus more on tanning because I just get more compliments when I'm tan,” she says. “Obviously, I’m worried about the health risks, but I smoke cigarettes and I never wear sunscreen.”

For Meredith, a 27-year-old in San Antonio, her desire to go to a tanning bed is also interlinked with the pressures of diet culture. “I typically tan four or five a week when I’m consistently going, when I know I have a lot of events coming up or if I’m feeling extra exposed and vulnerable about my body,” she says. “I follow the philosophy of ‘if you can’t tone it, tan it’ because I feel like it camouflages or pulls attention away from texture unevenness.”

Like other young people, Meredith’s approach to the dangers around tanning beds is filled with general pessimism about the future of the planet, in the face of climate change and political unrest. “The world is dying. Lay in a tanning bed. Who cares anymore,” she Tweeted recently. Despite this, she says she is “slightly concerned” with the possibility of getting skin cancer. “It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says. “But I’ve been so jaded about the current state of the world that I figure I’ll be dead before it’s a problem.”

While today’s overall tanning bed usage is low in comparison to the indoor tanning hey-day, sunbed content online is serving as a grave reminder that just because something has gone out of the limelight because of health concerns, doesn’t mean the next generation will be as acutely aware or concerned about those risks. In fact, it’s clear that some teenagers are still finding a way around the current legislation. Combining the younger generation’s existentialism with their love for nostalgic vices (just think of the current cigarette comeback) could be a recipe for a major problem when it comes to indoor tanning. After all, not everything from the ’00s needs to come back in style.