Indoor Tanning: When Women Reflect on Reasons They Tan, Tanning Bed Use Decreases

Indoor Tanning: When Women Reflect on Reasons They Tan, Tanning Bed Use Decreases

Rutgers study finds promise in intervention that offers alternatives to tanning indoors

Rutgers study finds web-based interventions may discourage young women from using indoor tanning.
Photo: Getty Images

'The study opened my eyes. I didn’t realize I unconsciously thought that someone who is more tanned is more attractive. It made me realize that girls my age compare themselves to models and celebrities far too often.'
Michelle Reedy

Rutgers University junior 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,” said Reedy, now 20. “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 was one of 186 women, who participated in a research study at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey that examined the impact of a website intervention to discourage indoor tanning behavior.

The study, which appears in the current online issue of 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,” said 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.

The study, conducted between December 2013 and May 2014, was funded in part by the National Cancer Institute.

Rutgers student Michelle Reedy participated in a study on indoor tanning.
Photo: Michelle Reedy
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 said. “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 U.S., including 6,000 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

In New Jersey, indoor tanning has been banned commercially for those under 17. In December, the U.S. 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.  

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 said. “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 said 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 said, adding, “It made me realize that girls my age compare themselves to models and celebrities far too often.”

Stapleton said 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 added 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 said the online program can be expanded or complemented with social media by posting messages in users’ Facebook or Twitter feeds.