The findings of the study were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Behavioral Science, which points to the fact that fear and worry of the potential damage caused by skin cancer was more likely to lead to sunscreen use than simple statistical information outlining the risk.
The findings will also make interesting reading for both dermatologists and sunscreen manufacturers, who are looking for effective messages to get the importance of sunscreen use across.
Triggering an emotional reaction
"Most health behavior studies don't account for the more visceral, emotional reactions that lead people to do risky behaviors, like eat junk food or ignore the protective benefits of sunscreen," says Marc Kiviniemi, lead researcher and assistant professor of community health and health behavior.
"This study is important because most of what we do in public health communications focuses on spreading knowledge and information. By not addressing emotions, we're potentially missing a rich influence on behavior when interventions don't address feelings."
The study used data from a nationwide study conducted by the National Cancer Institute, that used 1,500 randomly selected participants with no personal history of skin cancer.
Education, sex and ethnicity have bearing on sunscreen use
After being quizzed about their sunscreen habits, the frequency of sunscreen use varied, with 32 percent reporting ''never'' using it, and 14 percent ''always'' using it. Education was associated with increased sunscreen use and men and non-White participants were both less likely to use sunscreen.
However, the study also found a clear link that the cognitive trigger to using sunscreen was fear and worry of the potential threat not using it posed to skin health, rather than straight statistics of the likelihood of developing it from unprotected sunbathing.
"These findings show that clinicians might want to think more about feelings when encouraging people to use sunscreen," says Kiviniemi.
"In addition to providing educational information about risk, encouraging people to consider how they feel about cancer and how worried they are about it might inspire preventive behaviors."
Shock rather than stats
Many healthcare campaigns have focused on the increased statistical likelihood of developing cancer due to not using sunscreens, but this information could lead to the adoption of a new approach in future.
The study also follows on from recent research conducted by the University of Colorado Denver that showed teens are more likely to use sunscreen if it is underlined that it could compromise their looks and skin appearance, rather than stressing the risk of cancer.