MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Are you laying down in a tanning bed, or a Petri dish? A WMBF News investigation unveils a dangerous lack of oversight from state health inspectors that's trickling down into some eye-opening health concerns in local tanning salons. Anchor Heather Biance goes undercover to expose some serious problems with tanning bed cleanliness.
The cost for that endless summer just might be higher than you think.
"A lot of places you go, it's $70, $80, $90 a month," explains a tanning salon employee. If you aren't careful, pouring that money into a less-than-sterile tanning salon can put you at risk of some unsettling dangers.
A former employee of Ultra Tan came to WMBF News, disgusted, frustrated and wanting change.
"I've seen water dripping down on beds, people leaving beds dirty and calling it a night. I go in there to tan, look up...got hand prints everywhere," says the woman, who will be identified only as 'Jessica.'
But it's not just what you can see; it's what you can't see that you should be really concerned about.
"Any bacterial viral infection can be picked up from a tanning bed, if it's not cleaned properly," says Dr. Robert Bibb, a dermatologist in Myrtle Beach.
That means everything from athlete's foot to lice, jock itch, staph infections, herpes, or warts. Dr. Bibb says a dirty tanning bed is the place for bacteria and viruses to flourish, because your sweat and those warm lights create the moist environment these nasty strains thrive in.
"People come in all the time and say 'Hey, I think I picked this up from the tanning bed.' Hard to prove because anything you can get skin-to-skin, you can get from an inanimate object-to-skin," says Dr. Bibb.
It's also difficult to prove a tanning bed was the culprit, because these bacteria strains can be found on toilet seats, hotel rooms, or even your cell phone.
While ultraviolet light "C" can kill off bacteria, the UV "A" or UV "B" light that's used in these indoor tanning machines don't do the job. Another tanning salon employee says that they do use a hospital-grade cleaner called Sano.
"The employees get paid minimum wage, so they don't really feel like they have to put in much effort, and I don't think they really understand the consequences to their actions by not cleaning the beds," says former salon employee 'Jennifer.' "They think, 'Oh I'll clean it next time.' They don't think somebody could be getting a disease, somebody could get sick from this."
All salons are required to get a permit to operate from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, but DHEC openly admits it hasn't completed routine annual inspections on tanning salons since 2001. The state simply doesn't provide the money for those kinds of inspections, and the only time they do is if a customer takes the time file a complaint, something that's rarely done.
In fact, the only complaint filed in the last two years was at the Planet Fitness in Florence. Five violations were listed for requiring customers to clean their own beds, and not having the warning signs of tanning clearly visible. Sixty days were given for managers to comply, which they did.
Because DHEC isn't testing, WMBF News' Heather Biance did instead. She put four popular tanning salons to the test: Planet Fitness in Florence, Sunset Tanning, Aruba Tan and UItra Tan in Myrtle Beach. She went in, scanned the bed for traces of DNA, swabbed a sample, and immediately sent it off to a lab for testing.
Here are the results:
- Planet Fitness in Florence showed no signs of bacteria from our collections.
- The sample from Sunset Tanning near 29th Avenue North on Kings Highway came back positive for micrococcus, which is basically the bacteria you typically find in sweat.
- The results for Aruba Tan along River Oaks Drive had nothing of concern.
- However, the results from Ultra Tan on 38th Avenue North were disturbing: four strains of bacteria came back positive, including baccilus, which is usually found in dirt, staphylococcus, and gram negative bacilli, which is typically found in stool samples, and can be an indicator of e-coli.
If cleaned properly, nothing should be in these beds.
We gave Ultra Tan numerous opportunities to respond to the result via email and by phone. After several calls to the local branch manager, and to their corporate office in Greenville, we were told they would not be commenting.
The moral of this story is tanner beware. When asked if customers should trust the 'Sanitized' sign over their tanning bed, 'Jessica' says: "No, absolutely not."
Dr. Bibb suggests if you still feel a need to climb in, to take the time to thoroughly clean the bed yourself.
If you've had a terrible experience and don't know how to notify DHEC, just go to the link below and scroll down below where it says "fill out and submit complaint."