Don't Trust The Internet is a weekly column where we investigate all the bullshit tabloid stories, political memes and conspiracy hearsay that your mum is sharing on Facebook. This week, can sunbeds give you STIs?
Many years ago, I remember a friend at school telling me that swimming in public pools could get you pregnant. As a male, and as such womb-less, this wasn't a massive concern for me, but that didn't stop the image from burrowing into the deepest-most canals of my brain tissue. What was the logic? That hairy-legged teenage lads were spunking under-water? That their sperm was somehow swimming lengths and chasing down unsuspecting females? It was enough to turn the clear chlorine lanes into a murky, milky mess.
I was reminded of these erratic fears with the resurfacing of a similarly unsavoury rumour on the internet this week: the theory that you can legit get herpes and loads of other STIs if you spend time in a tanning bed. This story first properly blew up last year when a dermatologist called Dawn Marie Davis sort of confirmed it, telling Yahoo that the chances of contracting viral infections from a sunbed are actually quite high. From here the news that tanning gives you herpes spread like, well, herpes. The Daily Mail, Glamour, Huffington Post and even the BBC started to spread the story. Since then, the rumour has festered on the unkempt crotch of the internet, only to periodically reemerge when people repost the initial story.
In the original interview with Dawn the dermatologist, she basically said that people are gross. People are gross and they have herpes and verrucas and open cuts. They then take their pus-ridden failing bodies and lock themselves in insulated chambers whereby they lie in the residual mess of the previous thousand people to have used the tanning salon before them. While the misconception might be that ultraviolet light would kill off the offending bacteria, according to Davies, it in fact provides the perfect conditions for them to get "stronger and hardier". This, unsurprisingly, leads to gross people catching nasty shit from other gross people. It sort of makes sense. When you start to consider sunbeds like that they suddenly seem less like a pre-holiday ritual and more like an ant farm for crabs.
Now I've never used a sunbed. I have Scottish genes which means if the weather is hot enough everywhere is basically a sunbed. I get sunburned if I stand too close to a TV playing Neighbours so the thought of being trapped in a luminous coffin specifically designed to slowly cook my skin sounds like a well-lit hell on earth. That said, this particular urban myth plays heavy on my mind. I know plenty of people who regularly use tanning salons who I'm sure don't wish to suffer the ignominy of an STI (especially when they haven't had the bad sex to deserve it). I also know plenty of people who caught herpes through the traditional grubby manner and wouldn't want the ignominy of anyone thinking they used sunbeds.
Time to do some mythbusting then, and find out if you actually might catch more than a few rays next you're down at Solaris or whatever these places are called.
Snopes, who were responsible for resurfacing the story this week, asked a disease control expert who agreed that "studies have demonstrated that some STDs... can survive on some surfaces or in water" but was keen to add that "transmission of such STDs is overwhelmingly by direct genital contact". This paints a slightly confusing picture. It seems that it's possible, but not necessarily likely.
Anyway, a wise man once said "people have had enough of experts", so I also spoke to tanners on the ground. I phoned a local tanning salon to ask them if they would give me herpes.
VICE: Do you clean your sunbeds between every customer?
Tanning salon guy: Yeah obviously we sterilise them.
Okay, well do you vet your customers at all?
What do you mean?
You know, what if they're not totally, medically ready to use the sunbed?
Well they have to fill in a card beforehand that has loads of questions on it. It asks if they suffer from heart conditions, dizziness, epilepsy, and it goes on and on. If they say yes to any of them then they can't use the machine unless they have a note from their doctor.
Sure, yeah, but I mean, what if they had something else, like a more skin-based issue, y'know...
What, cold sores? We wouldn't let them use it if they had a cold sore.
Okay, I'm sort of beating around the bush here. If I've got herpes can I use one of your sunbeds?
What? No. Have you got herpes?
No, I don't have herpes, I'm just wondering if you can catch herpes from using a sunbed — have you never heard that rumour?
What? No I haven't, that's total fucking bollocks.
But what if someone who had herpes used one of your beds – wouldn't the warm UV rays be the perfect environment for cultivating an STI?
If you've got herpes you can't use one of our beds.
I haven't got herpes and I don't want to use your one of your beds.
Why are you asking then?
Because it's a rumour I read on the internet and I wanted to find out if it was true.
Well, it isn't. I've worked in this salon for ten years and I've never heard such crap. Reputable tanning salons are very clean places that are sterilised between customers. It is literally impossible to getting herpes, that's absolute horseshit.
So nobody has ever complained about getting herpes from your sunbeds?
So there we have it. Despite what "science" says, the chances of actually contracting an STI in a tanning salon are basically zero. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that in the real world, tanning salons are kept pretty clean, and if you waltz in wearing a pair of lime-green speedos with pustules littering your speckled crotch, you're unlikely to be too welcome.
I guess there is a small chance that if you went to the dodgiest salon in Britain, the one you always drive past on the way before the edge of your town joins the motorway, the one called "Sunny Daze" that offers 30 minutes for a fiver, the one run by the bloke who looks like a member of Status Quo, the one that always has a skip outside it – and someone had just popped in before you and was literally riddled with herpes, there's still the tiniest chance you could catch something. But still you know, a way smaller chance then the chance of catching herpes from having sex with literally anyone.
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