APR 10, 2016 11:00 AM PDT

This intervention doesn't scold about tanning's cancer risk

An online intervention that asks women to reflect on their motivations for indoor tanning may make them more likely to stop.
"We're trying to understand the experiences of young women and their behavior through their lens," says Jerod L. Stapleton. "Tanning is something that makes them feel good about themselves. If we can encourage them to think about it in a different way, rather than saying ‘I can't believe you're doing this; you'll get cancer, you'll get wrinkles,' then maybe they'll change their behaviors."

The study, which appears in Health Psychology, was unique because it didn’t lecture the women on the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation—researchers assumed users were already aware of the dangers – but rather on the mindset surrounding tanning.

“We’re trying to encourage tanners to think about their tanning and why they’re doing it,” says lead author Jerod L. Stapleton, behavioral scientist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

The women in the study, all from Rutgers and between the ages of 18 and 25, had used a tanning bed at least once in the last 12 months. Study participants were divided into two groups with one group encouraged through a website intervention to consider their reasons for tanning—for example, media and celebrity influences, social pressures, or a negative body image.

The research found that women who viewed the website were more likely to stop using tanning beds compared to women not asked to reflect on their behavior.

Special occasions

Michelle Reedy always knew that indoor tanning could damage her skin, or worse, lead to cancer, but she still went to the tanning salon—just once—for her high school prom.

“I wanted to get some nice color for the senior prom,” says Reedy, a 20-year-old junior at Rutgers University. “I know it’s bad for you, but I did it anyway. My friends go a lot more frequently; some have gym memberships that include using tanning beds.”

Reedy is one of 186 women who participated in a research study at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Some women, including Reedy, told the researchers they tan for special occasions, such as a wedding. Others, who tanned more frequently, said they do it to look good or feel better about themselves.

“For some, tanning is part of who they are. It’s what they do. It’s what their friends do. It’s part of their social life,” Stapleton says. “They’re hesitant to stop.”

The Centers for Disease Control says that indoor tanning is not safe and causes premature aging. A 2014 study cited by the CDC linked indoor tanning to 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the US, including 6,000 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

In December, the US Food and Drug Administration proposed restricting the use of indoor tanning beds to those 18 and older.

The popularity of indoor tanning in the last two decades has been accompanied with an increase in the number of melanoma cases among young adult women. The 2014 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer report highlighted the need for interventions to address the underlying behavior of indoor tanning.

Other options

The group of women who reflected on why they tan was also offered alternatives to tanning by the researchers. For example, if a woman tans because she likes the way she looks, the researchers suggested she use spray-on color or lotion instead. If a woman uses an indoor tanning salon because it relaxes her, the researchers suggested yoga or exercise instead. Participants were told to list their best attributes and remind themselves of these qualities when they are dissatisfied with their looks.

“We’re trying to understand the experiences of young women and their behavior through their lens,” Stapleton says. “Tanning is something that makes them feel good about themselves. If we can encourage them to think about it in a different way, rather than saying ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this; you’ll get cancer, you’ll get wrinkles,’ then maybe they’ll change their behaviors.”

Reedy says she was already aware of the dangers of sun and ultraviolet exposure because her mother has a mild form of melanoma. Still, participating in the study made her aware of some things about herself.

“The study opened my eyes. I didn’t realize I unconsciously thought that someone who is more tanned is more attractive,” she says, adding, “It made me realize that girls my age compare themselves to models and celebrities far too often.”

Stapleton says the study is encouraging, but more research needs to be done to determine if the website is effective in discouraging indoor tanning. He hopes to get additional funding to broaden the study.

Stapleton adds he believes an important aspect of the website relates to promoting positive body image and he would like to see this addressed in more health interventions with young women. He says the online program could be expanded or combined with messages on social media.

The National Cancer Institute partially funded the study, which took place between December 2013 and May 2014.

Source: Roya Rafei for Rutgers University

This post was originally published on futurity.org.
About the Author
  • Futurity features the latest discoveries by scientists at top research universities in the US, UK, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The nonprofit site, which launched in 2009, is supported solely by its university partners (listed below) in an effort to share research news directly with the public.
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