Bronze Illusions: What Motivates Frequent Tanners?

Here at the Skin Cancer Foundation we continuously grapple with how to reach each new generation of young people who bake in the sun and use ultraviolet (UV) tanning beds. We urgently want them to absorb the message that tanning is not worth the long- term dangers of skin cancer and premature aging.

We recently discovered some novel work in this area being done by Jerod Stapleton, PhD, a behavioral scientist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.  With a grant from the National Cancer Institute, Stapleton and co-researchers are investigating the social reasons why young people, especially young women, become frequent tanners.   By better understanding what drives them, Stapleton hopes to design a web-based application to motivate tanners to stop.

We recently spoke with Dr. Stapleton about his research:

SCF: What made you interested in the social reasons driving women to use tanning beds?

JS:  I had conducted a focus group study of college-aged women, and I was surprised to see how much peers were involved with tanning. They talk with their friends about tanning, compare their tans and go on tanning dates together. The key thing that opened my eyes in this study was how women have internalized tanning as a really important part of the way they need to look and who they are,  and how they present themselves to the world. They feel really invested in this behavior.  We have to work at getting people to think about why tanning is so valuable to them. And maybe try and change those values on a personal level. 

SCF: Do you think if these frequent tanners saw UV photos of their sun-damaged skin, they would be motivated to stop tanning?

JS: It can be helpful to show UV photos or give information about the sun can damage appearance, but it doesn’t always deter tanners. For example, I conducted a 2010 study that showed an appearance-focused intervention was effective at reducing tanning among women with lower prior knowledge of appearance risks.  However, its effects were less powerful for those who already knew about these risks. I believe the potential for long-term risks may not deter frequent tanners who have a powerful investment in the immediate benefits of tanning. 

SCF:  Tell us about the web-based intervention you plan to design for frequent tanners. 

JS:  The idea behind my grant is to do interviews and find what is driving these women. We will use what we learn to create a web-based intervention with an app component. We want to make women think about their reasons for tanning and get them to reconsider. Is it really worth the risks? Are there other ways to get the benefits they feel they gain by tanning? We’d also like to send them information regularly through the app or through text messages. If they do decide to change, we may be able to reinforce that choice with twice-weekly text messages to keep things fresh in their mind. 

SCF: What do you think about the recent research showing that tanning beds are available at nearly half of top US colleges?

JS: It’s a problem if any college made aware of this issue would knowingly continue to facilitate students’ access to tanning beds. I hope these findings are primarily driven by a lack of awareness on many campuses and that the availability will change when administrators are made aware. Universities have a responsibility to protect student health, and there is no place for tanning beds on campus, whether officially sanctioned or indirectly available.

Published on March 6, 2015