When you hear about teens and tanning, you may laugh it off as no big deal. But doctors say it IS a big deal: Studies show that kids who go tanning are more likely to get skin cancer. That's why most states have tough laws about who can use tanning salons.
But when teens try to get in the door, are salons stopping them? Our hidden cameras rolled to put them to the test.
The "Tan Mom," New Jersey mother of five Patricia Krentcil, was charged with bringing her 5-year-old daughter into the tanning booth. She's pled not guilty. But this national spectacle has raised serious concerns about the dangers of underage tanning. "If you start tanning as a teenager, you're 74 times more likely to get a malignant melanoma as a younger adult than you would otherwise," said Dr. Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist.
Right now, 33 states have tough age restrictions at tanning salons. In the Tan Mom's home state of New Jersey, kids under 14 are banned, and those aged 14 to 17 must have a parent with them, to give written consent. But we found some salons apparently are ignoring the law and seem willing to allow teens in - no questions asked.
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We did an experiment, wiring up a young TODAY show staffer and sending her into six tanning salons in New Jersey, posing as a 15-year-old looking to bronze up. With her went another young NBC staffer, posing as her teenage friend.
Our first stop was Soleil Tans in Matawan. "I'd like to get a tan, please," our undercover staffer said. "I have my sweet 16 this weekend, so I just want to do a one-time."
The clerk immediately shut her down. "I'm sorry. It's the law. I can't, I can't - anyone under the age of 18 needs parental consent to tan. The parent has to be in here and sign the waiver."
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Two other salons - Electric Beach Tanning and Golden Tan, both in East Brunswick - also did the right thing: No parent present, no tanning. But at Hot Spot Tanning in Edison, our girl was waved right in and the clerk took her back to the tanning bed.
That's when we showed up. "You just sold this young woman a tanning package, and you never got her parents to sign a permission form."
"Yeah, you're right," the clerk admitted. "I apologize to you, I should have asked."
The owner later told us: His clerk violated policy. But we weren't done yet. Our next stop: Tantalize salon in Somerset.
"My sweet 16 is this weekend," our undercover staffer said. "So I was wondering if you could show me how, like what kind of beds you have and how much it would be for a tan?"
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The clerk didn't blink, even when our staffer wrote her birthday right on the salon's form, showing again that she was only 15. "You're all set in room 4," the clerk told her.
We identified ourselves and said, "You just allowed this young girl to tan here, she said she was underage."
"OK, I'm sorry," the clerk said. Then she walked away. The owner later told us the clerk was fired, because she violated policy.
"The results of your hidden camera investigation are completely unacceptable," New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg told us. Weinberg is pushing for even tougher laws, to ban all kids from tanning at salons, parental consent or not.
But the tanning industry is fighting it. "Government should not be getting involved in an outright ban," said Jennifer Neumayer of the Indoor Tanning Association. "And we have a sensible parental consent law already in place. It just needs to be enforced."
But in some cases, are the salons themselves helping kids to scheme? At the next one, Tansmania in North Brunswick, we were in for a twist. "I'd like to get a tan, please," our staffer said. "It's my birthday this weekend, sweet 16."
To get her in, the owner actually asked her friend (our other staffer) to sign the consent form, even though she was clearly not the girl's mother: "You just need to sign it for her, OK?" That's all it took, and our girl headed to the bed.
Again we stepped forward and identified ourselves. "Are you aware that the young girl you just allowed to tan is underage?" we asked. "The other woman who signed said she's not her parent, and still you let her go ahead anyway."
"She said she was her guardian," the owner claimed.
"No she didn't."
"You were not here," the owner said.
"I was watching on hidden camera."
"I'm gonna have to ask you guys to leave, OK?" the owner told us.
In the end, three out of six salons, half of them, allowed our girl to tan - access, doctors say, that's putting our teens at risk. "What's at stake is the health of our young people," New Jersey legislator Weinberg said. "It is up to us to protect young people from themselves."
Remember, letting underage kids into tanning salons without parental consent is illegal in many states - including New Jersey, where we went undercover. The Indoor Tanning Association says most salons do follow the law, and those that don't should be held accountable.