A survey of young women who use tanning beds, carried out by the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, on its students finds that despite being aware of the health risks associated with indoor tanning, they continue to take part in the activity.
The study, co-authored by UNC Lineberger members Seth M. Noar, PhD, of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Nancy Thomas, MD, of the UNC School of Medicine, aimed to understand what motivates young people to seek out tanning beds and how to develop messages to discourage their use among young people.
Despite awareness of the health risks, the convenience of the practice and the improvement of appearance seem to take precedence.
"We found that appearance is important, but we found that other factors to be equally or even more important,” says Noar.
“For instance, many of these young women reported really enjoying the experience of tanning indoors. They reported that it reduces stress and is relaxing to them. In the study, we called this factor 'mood enhancement'.”
The findings are particularly worrying given that most who use tanning beds are aware of the health risks but do so anyway, meaning that it may not be easy to create messages to impact this behavior.
According to the researchers, these messages could suggest alternatives such as self-tanning products that do not rely on UV rays instead of solely emphasizing the health risks.
"Use of sunless tanning products instead of tanning beds could potentially address two key factors that came out of our study appearance motivations to look tan and the convenience factor of getting a quick and easy tan."
More than 28 million people use tanning beds each year, and the population most at risk from developing skin cancer as a result are users younger than 35.
Results from the study, published in JAMA Dermatology, found that 45% of the young women surveyed had used tanning beds, with 30% using one in the last year; and also revealed that the majority of users started tanning indoors in their teens, indicating that health campaigns addressing should target high school audiences.
In the past decade, medical research has discovered direct links between tanning bed use and higher rates of the skin cancers basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, according to Dr Thomas.
"Tanning is an artificial form of light that leads to carcinogenesis. It causes mutations, DNA alterations. So, there could be breaks in the DNA. It can also cause increased cell proliferation," she says.
As a next step, the UNC researchers plan to work with UNC graduate students to help develop messages about the dangers of tanning targeting young audiences.