How to Talk to Your Teen About Tanning

The Foundation talked to Amy Wechsler, MD, board-certified in psychiatry and dermatology, about how to communicate effectively with teens and tweens about tanning.

It’s tremendously important to warn teens about tanning — but can you get through to them? Teenagers are notorious for ignoring their parents’ advice, and disregarding rules designed for their safety. “When I was a child, my parents were focused on smoking and wearing seatbelts,” says Amy Wechsler, MD, the parent of a teen and a preteen. “Today, I’m also concerned that my kids wear sunscreen and bike helmets.” Board-certified in both psychiatry and dermatology, she practices the latter in New York City. She talked with The Skin Cancer Foundation about how to communicate effectively with teens and tweens about tanning.


Studies show that once children reach their teen years, parents' influence wanes as peer influence becomes much stronger. Why is this, and how can parents regain some influence?

AW: Some kids want to be rebellious, and that could have something to do with parents’ declining influence! But I think that for many kids, the interest in tanning is actually more about the look. My son wears rash guards [sun-protective swim shirts], and I told him never to sunburn, but then everybody at his summer camp told him, “You look so good with your tan — you look healthy!” If you hear that enough, you believe it. A tan is still shorthand for, “I look athletic, like I’ve been outdoors exercising, not like a wallflower sitting at home alone!” But the truth is, as parents we have a lot of influence: our kids are watching us like hawks. You might not realize it, but you’re modeling behavior for your kids all the time. So model healthy outdoor behavior by seeking shade, and by wearing sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat, for instance.

Do teens understand mortality and aging, and how tanning might affect their health?

Kids feel invincible when they’re young. This kind of healthy narcissism is a part of their psychological development. When kids are warned about something like skin cancer, they think it’s not going to happen to them, or it’s so far in the future it doesn’t seem real or particularly scary.


Should parents approach their teen[s] together or individually?

What’s important is that you repeat the anti-tanning message in as many different ways as possible. Don’t gang up on your child, but do repeat the message whenever you can. You want a give and take with the kids — listen to your kids as well as lecture them!

Would you recommend offering incentives or rewards? (“If you don’t tan, I’ll buy you…”)

Sure, it might work, especially with 10-to-12-year-olds are often amenable to this approach.

Should parents focus more on the risk of skin cancer due to tanning, or on vanity — increased skin aging and the damage to one’s appearance?

It depends on the teens and their personal interests. I use the cosmetic argument. I ask, “Ten years from now, do you want to look older than your friends who didn’t tan?” I often show them a photo of a truck driver whose face is vastly aged on the left side from the sun. [People who do a lot of driving are more likely to have sun damage and skin cancers on the left side of the face, which receives more UV (ultraviolet) radiation than the right.] That being said, some teens are not concerned with their looks, and for them, a discussion about the health risks associated with tanning could be effective.

What about teens who say they feel more attractive when they’re tan?

Girls feel a huge pressure to be skinny, and many believe they look thinner, and more attractive, when tan. In these cases, you can emphasize non-UV tanning options, like self-tanners and spray tans. These can look natural, and they won’t damage your skin, though they must be worn with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF, or sun protection factor, of 15+ for brief everyday exposures, and SPF 30+, water-resistant sunscreen for extended or intense sun exposures. I don’t use self-tanners myself — I believe in going with your own glow — but I recommend self-tanners as opposed to UV, by all means.

What do you tell teens who say that tanning improves their mood?

For teens suffering from SAD [seasonal affective disorder,a common mood disorder that causes depression, generally during the gloom of winter], the treatment is visible light. It’s the light that enters the eyes through a lamp or light box that treats SAD, not UV light from a tanning bed.

Does it help to cite celebrities who have shunned tanning?

Yes, absolutely. We need to point to celebrities like Adele, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, and Emma Stone. None of these stars are tan.

Do you have any other suggestions?

Repetition is key — you can never repeat your message too often! Also, personal stories can be very powerful. I have sun damage on my arms from my childhood, and when I’m trying to educate kids I show them my arms, which have little white dots I can’t get rid of. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who can use himself or herself as an example! Modern medicine is about prevention, and education is such an important part of it. Much of this education should come from home. So share your sunscreen, and your information.

Amy Wechsler, MD, is Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Clinical Professor in Dermatology at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center. A dermatologist practicing in New York, she is the author of The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Reverse Stress Aging and Reveal More Youthful, Beautiful Skin. Dr. Wechsler is consulting dermatologist to Chanel, and a recipient of the Scholastic Achievement Award from the American Medical Women’s Association.

Published on June 12, 2013