Sept. 21, 2010 -- Sunless tanning has long been promoted as a safe alternative to sunbathing and tanning bed use. Now two new studies suggest the message may be resonating with teens and young adults and even keeping some out of the sun.
The findings also suggest that promoting sunless tanning may be a more effective strategy for reducing skin cancer than trying to convince people who prize a bronzed look simply to stay out of the sun.
“That message has been out there for a long time, but it has done nothing to change people’s perception that tanned skin is attractive,” University of Massachusetts Medical School assistant professor of medicine Sherry Pagoto, PhD, tells WebMD. “When it comes to physical appearance, it is hard to change social norms with a public health message.”
Whether applied at home with a cream or spray tanner or sprayed on in a salon by a professional, sunless tanners essentially dye the dead outer layer of the skin to make it look bronzed. The “tan” lasts up to a week.
The best products contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which has been commercially available since the early 1970s, Pagoto says.
Beach-Goers Changed Tanning Habits
In their effort to determine if promoting sunless tanning would change sunbathing habits, Pagoto and colleagues recruited 250 female beach-goers for their study in the summer of 2006.
Half the women received information about the benefits of sunless tanning and the risks associated with UV exposure from the sun or tanning beds. They were also given sunscreen and sunless tanning samples and had UV-filtered photos taken. The photos revealed sun damage to skin not visible to the naked eye.
The other women received none of these interventions, but all the study participants agreed to be contacted for follow-up.
Two months later, women in the intervention group reported sunbathing less frequently and using more protective clothing than the other women.
A year later, the intervention group still reported sunbathing less and using sunless tanning products more often.
Survey of Teen Tanning Habits
In a separate study, researchers with the American Cancer Society asked 1,600 teens about their use of sunless tanning products.
The telephone surveys were conducted between July and October of 2004.
About one in 10 (11%) reported using a sunless tanning product within the past year. Older teenage girls were most likely to use the products.
Sunless tanning product users also reported greater UV radiation exposure from sunbathing and tanning bed use. They also had more sunburns.
The study was funded in part by Neutragena Corporation, which manufacturers several sunless tanning products. The researchers report that the company had no role in the study’s design or in collecting or interpreting the data.
American Cancer Society director for risk factor surveillance and health policy Vilma E. Cokkinides, PhD, says teenage girls whose mothers used sunless tanning products were more likely to use them as well.
She tells WebMD that efforts to promote sunless tanning for skin cancer prevention may be premature.
“Dermatologists may feel differently, but I believe it is too soon to do this,” she says. “We don’t really know enough about how people are using these products.”
The two studies appear in the September issue of the Archives of Dermatology.
In an editorial accompanying the studies, Northwestern University professor of clinical dermatology and Archives editor June K. Robinson, MD, wrote that sunless tanning products may have the most impact on the habits of event tanners, such as teenage girls who want a bronzed glow for the prom.
The message may resonate less with habitual tanners who tan to improve their mood or reduce stress, she tells WebMD.
“It would be important to offer these people alternatives to tanning,” she says.