The Misunderstood Psychology of Fake Tanning

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REUTERS/Lee Celano

As summer comes to a close and we all fade back to our winter shades of pale, two studies offer conflicting information about the impact of fake tanning — using sunless tanning lotion, spray or even airbrush — on cancer risk.One study found that offering women a fake tan could help them lower their risk of skin damage from the sun, but another found that adolescent women who used fake tanning methods were more likely to sunbathe al fresco as well. (More on Time.com: Clinical Trial Dilemma: Save Lives Now — or Later?)

In a study published in the Archives of Dermatology, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester recruited 250 randomly selected women on a beach; some were offered free sunless tanning lotion samples along with a bit of skin-cancer education, while others were given cosmetics samples. After two months, the women who got sunless tanning lotion reported a 33% decrease in episodes of sunbathing, compared with a 10% decrease among women in the control cosmetics group (both groups were given information about sun safety and had special photos taken that revealed sun damage below the skin’s surface).

Despite these positive results, another study in the Archives of Dermatology looked at the behavior of 1,600 adolescents aged 11 to 18, and found that young women who used sunless tanning lotion were *more* likely to use other skin-damaging methods of achieving the bronzed glow, including indoor tanning beds and actual sunbathing. Reuters reports:

“Our findings are that in adolescents, use of sunless tanning products appears independently correlated with risky UVR exposure behaviors [indoor tanning and having sunburns in the previous summer] but not with routine use of sunscreen,” wrote Vilma E. Cokkinides, of the American Cancer Society, and colleagues, in a news release.

One possible reason for the disconnect could be the fact that sunscreen damages a spray tan, causing blotchiness. This discourages regular sunscreen use among spray tanners. (More on Time.com: Study: Indoor Tanning Increases Skin Cancer Risk)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 million sun-related skin cancer cases are diagnosed each year and 8,700 people die from deadly forms, such as melanoma. So it’s no wonder that people are looking for another way to get a healthy glow. (That being said, some sun exposure helps the body produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient, and many Americans are deficient due to skin cancer vigilance).

The jury’s still out on the best way to get chronic tanners to protect themselves better from skin cancer. But one question remains for me: is anyone studying the male fake ‘n’ bakers among us? We know they’re out there.

More on Time.com:

Health Check-Up: Women & Health

Health Checkup: How to Live to 100 Years Old

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