In an American Journal of Public Health article, Darren Mays, PhD, MPH, takes a deep look at tanning, skin cancer and how communication might assist with prevention. Photo by Darren Mays

In an American Journal of Public Health article, Darren Mays, PhD, MPH, takes a deep look at tanning, skin cancer and how communication might assist with prevention. Photo by Darren Mays

Summer is approaching. For many, that means beach vacations, cookouts and fun in the sun are near. However, for some, summer also marks the beginning of tanning season and unhealthy exposure to UV rays. According to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, melanoma rates doubled between 1982 and 2011. Further, each year, 380,000 skin cancer cases are attributable to indoor tanning.

A new study from the American Journal of Public Health looked at whether changes to warning messaging could help deter young women from indoor tanning. To learn more, Public Health Newswire checked in with lead researcher, Darren Mays, PhD, MPH, to take a deeper look at tanning, skin cancer and how communication might assist with prevention. Mays, who is with Georgetown University Medical Center and the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, is also a former chair of APHA’s Student Assembly.

Q: As the summer months approach, tanning will become more and more popular. How dangerous is it and do the risks differ between indoor tanning and outdoor tanning?

A: Indoor tanning, as little as one time, raises the lifetime risk of non-melanoma skin cancer by 30 percent or more and also increases the risk of melanoma by about 30 percent. The risks of skin cancer increase each time someone tans. The risk further increases when people begin indoor tanning during adolescence and young adulthood. All UV radiation exposure — whether it is by indoor tanning or natural sunlight — is a risk factor for skin cancer. And the risks vary by a number of personal factors — family history of skin cancer, skin complexion, among others.

Indoor tanning delivers a highly concentrated dose of UV radiation in a short time period, which is more than what someone typically experiences from sun exposure. The best advice for skin cancer prevention is to avoid indoor tanning and engage in sun protection, such as using broad spectrum sunscreen, avoiding prolonged sun exposure during peak hours — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — seeking shade and wearing protective clothing.

Q: Are certain people at greater risk for skin cancer than others?

A: The risks of skin cancer vary by a number of personal factors. Examples of these include one’s complexion or “skin type,” whether they have had skin cancer previously or whether someone in their family has had skin cancer previously. Severe sunburns and indoor tanning interact with these personal factors to increase skin cancer risks as well.

Q: Your study analyzed whether different warnings can influence indoor tanning. What did you find?

A: We compared different kinds of messaging to investigate what might increase a woman’s intention to quit indoor tanning. One message was text-only and two other types of messages used vivid imagery and text conveying information about indoor tanning. Among the messages using imagery and text, one message type — called a “loss-framed” message — communicated the risks of indoor tanning and used graphic imagery, such as pictures of skin cancer. The other message type — called a “gain-framed” message — communicated the benefits of avoiding indoor tanning for reducing skin cancer risks and used imagery depicting healthy skin.

We found that the loss-framed messages decreased young women’s intentions to tan in the future compared to all other message types. We also found that both the gain- and loss-framed message increased young women’s intentions to quit tanning in the future, compared with the text-only message. However, the loss-framed messages led to greater increases. In summary, our study showed that persuasive messaging incorporating visual imagery and particularly the loss-framed messages were more effective than the text-only messages.

Q: Tobacco products are required to carry warnings that inform consumers about the risk of smoking. Is there anything we can learn from those in the context of indoor tanning?

A: The research on tobacco product warning labels shows that warnings with vivid visual imagery and text that convey the risks of tobacco use are more effective than text-only warning labels. Currently, text-only warning labels are required for indoor tanning devices, including tanning beds and tanning booths. Consistent with the research on tobacco warning labels, our study suggests that indoor tanning device warning labels that use vivid imagery and persuasive text to communicate the risks of indoor tanning could be more effective than the currently required warnings.

For more about the study and other new public health research, visit the American Journal of Public Health. Also, to learn more about keeping your skin protected from harmful rays, check out APHA’s latest Storify.