The internal monologue of the habitual tanner

BY CHRISTINE COESTER

Meet Sophie, a habitual tanner, and follow along as she reasons through her choice to go to a tanning salon.

Meet Sophie, a habitual tanner, and follow along as she reasons through her choice to go to a tanning salon. Drawing by Lauren Steffens

Click for a creative tappable version of this story.

A recent study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, left researchers puzzled.

Women understand the health risks that arise from indoor tanning, yet they continue to do so. The question then becomes, if young women understand these risks, why do they keep tanning?

The study published Feb. 5 in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) asked more than 700 women about their indoor tanning habits and assessed the set of beliefs that motivate tanning behavior. The online survey was distributed to women between the ages of 18 and 25, of which 45% reported they had tanned indoors in their lifetime and 30% in the past year.

Seth Noar, the primary investigator of the study, explained the four main reasons women give for tanning. The first and most important factor was termed mood enhancement, which Noar calls a “possible driver” of the behavior.

By mood enhancement, Noar means, “It’s relaxing, it puts them in a better mood. Like going to the salon or for a spa day.”

Then there is the convenience factor. “Indoor tanning is a quick and easy way to get a tan, a perceived benefit,” Noar explained. “These young women think, ‘I can go in for 12 minutes and get this quick jolt versus sitting outside to get the same tan.’”

How does skin cancer compare to other forms of cancer in the U.S.? Photo courtesy of the American Cancer Society.

How does skin cancer compare to other forms of cancer in the U.S.? Photo courtesy of the American Cancer Society.

The two remaining factors, social approval and appearance benefits, hinge largely on the pressure young women feel to be accepted by their peers and to be found attractive by the standards of beauty propagated in our culture.

“Your first instinct is to tell people about the risks of tanning, but that might not be a winning strategy,” Noar explained. Our study suggests that these other factors (appearance, convenience, better mood, social approval) will have to be addressed,” Noar explained.

Better would be to encourage women to do other relaxing things to take the place of tanning, like visiting the salon or doing yoga.

The Myth Behind A Healthy Glow

Simply put, a tan shows skin damage.

“There is no such thing as a healthy glow,” Noar said. The act of tanning is a bodily defense to sun exposure.

The lights of an indoor tanning bed shower a tanner with two types of light, UV-A and UV-B.  UV stands for ultraviolet light and the A and B differentiates between the lengths of the light wave.

Try to imagine those light waves as needles. UV-A, which has a longer light wave “needle,” can go deeper into the skin than a “UV-B needle” can. When these light waves penetrate into the skin, the wave zaps the fragile DNA found in skin cells.

The effects of UVA and UVB Rays. Photo courtesy of the American Cancer Society.

The effects of UVA and UVB Rays. Photo courtesy of the American Cancer Society.

As our cells work to repair themselves over a lifetime of repeated tans or burns (from exposure to these waves), the chances for mistakes increase, and the likelihood of getting skin cancer goes up. But this can take decades, Noar emphasized.

“There is a latency period,” he said. Young women, might not experience it now, but “it’ll happen further down the road.”

For years, researchers have proven the link between indoor tanning and various types of skin-cancers like melanoma, ocular melanoma (meaning cancers of the eye) and squamous cell carcinoma.

Indoor tanning is considered to be more dangerous than tanning in the sun, because the light bulbs consistently give off high intensity light. Comparatively, outdoor tanning is better. The light intensity can change based on the season, how cloudy it is and what time of day it is.

“If you step back and think about whether we can change things, the biggest thing that probably needs to change are peoples’ perceptions of tanned skin, this idea that tan is healthy,” Noar said. “That’s at the societal level.”

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3 thoughts on “The internal monologue of the habitual tanner

  1. Reblogged this on Christine G. Coester and commented:

    Women understand the health risks that arise from indoor tanning, yet they continue to do so. The question then becomes, if young women understand these risks, why do they keep tanning?

    Read my blog to find out! And make sure to check out the Tapestry piece linked at the top!

  2. I like the topic and the way you approach it, both on its science and the psychology of women who do tanning. It also refreshed my mind about tanning, with compelling scientific evidence to support its downside for people’s health. I’ve learned a lot.

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