Listen to the arguments against tanning, and you'll hear echoes of the arguments against premarital sex. "Just one time in a tanning bed has the potential to cause harm," warns Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., co-author of the federal bill to regulate salons. The AAD says you should wear a broad-brimmed hat and long pants, apply sunscreen half an hour before you go out and again every two hours, and stay out of the sun until 4 p.m. You might as well be in a chador. As for the idea of getting a "base tan" to prevent sunburn, dermatologists protest that this flimsy shield will only embolden you to persist in risky activity. Sounds like the case against condoms, doesn't it?
Part these clouds of bias, and the truth shines through. You can't stop tanning; the best you can do is help people control it. Toward that end, the industrialization of ultraviolet light is a blessing. It gives us the power to clarify, modulate, and customize dosage. Salons need oversight to make sure they help clients understand and manage this power. But if you shut them down or lock out teenagers, be prepared to enforce a dawn-to-dusk curfew or face an epidemic of skin cancer. If you liked back-alley abortions, you'll love backyard tanning.
Technology without guidance can be dangerous. The emerging peril in the tanning world isn't staffed salons; it's coin-operated, unsupervised machines, already proliferating in Europe, in which kids can toast themselves for lunch money. But with guidance, technology often solves its own problems. It won't be Congress that stops teens from cooking their skin. It'll be tanning sprays and lotions, which continue to improve in appearance, durability, and popularity. And guess who's going to lead the way? Salons.
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.