The sky is grey and a warm sun will not be making an appearance for months but millions of Germans have a tanned glow throughout the winter. Some have a decidedly orange tint.
About 16-million Germans — one-fifth of the population — top up their tans on sunbeds, more than in any other European country.
While the fans of solariums are dedicated to the just-off-the-beach look, doctors are concerned about rises in skin cancer caused by over exposure to harmful ultra-violet rays.
Every German town and city is dotted with garish tanning studios.
Companies like Sunplanet — whose advertising slogan is “the holidays continue” — Solarent, Mega Sun, Tropic Sun and Sunpoint are opening salons across the country.
There are about 12Â 000 tanning studios containing 90Â 000 booths, according to figures from the working group on dermatological damage prevention (ADP), which provides public information on the risks of skin cancer.
The damage done by over-use of sunbeds may be life-threatening but the scene at the tanning studios is slightly comic.
After peeling off the layers of winter lagging, the customers — most of them as naked as the day they were born — pull on a pair of protective goggles, slip into an individual cabin and ease themselves under the ultra-violet lights.
They can stay under there for 20, 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the option chosen.
“I normally go once a week for 30 minutes. It just makes me look better in the winter,” said Andrea, a 38-year-old interpreter from Berlin.
“I am aware of the health risks, though, and I stopped going when I was pregnant.”
Germans say the overwhelming reason they use tanning studios is because sun — even the artificial kind — makes them feel more “alive”. In a survey of almost 900 men and women carried out by Stuttgart Media University last year, a massive 91,8% of respondents gave this as their main reason.
Others said they wanted to avoid a winter pallor, with 84,6% saying a “lightly tanned skin” made them look healthier.
The German government is worried, however, that most users seem deaf to the risks of excessive tanning. The Stuttgart study shows that only one third of those questioned said they feared getting skin cancer from using solariums.
About 144Â 000 people contract skin cancer every year in Germany, including 20Â 000 who have the most serious form, melanoma.
And the numbers are rising, according to figures from the environment ministry.
“Health problems due to ultra-violet light are going to rise sharply if more and more people go to tanning studios,” said Eckhard Breitbart, a physician with the ADP.
Solarent, which has 32 large salons in Germany, is among the relatively few companies to have signed up to a code of conduct drafted by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, which mainly guarantees standards of hygiene.
Doctors are particularly concerned about the potential damage to children’s skin but there is currently no legislation to stop under-18s using tanning studios.
“We are currently discussing this but nothing has been decided,” said Environment Ministry spokesperson Tobias Duenow.
Meanwhile, millions of people are pulling on the goggles, settling under the blue light and trying to forget the driving rain outside. — AFP