Study: Fake Tans Help Keep Women Out of the Sun

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Women who get their tans from a bottle tend to do less real sunbathing and cut back on tanning bed use, according to a new study.

The findings suggest that encouraging tanners to use sunless products may help reduce their UV exposure, a known skin cancer risk. That’s been a point of debate among dermatologists — some have worried that promoting fake tans could backfire and motivate people to tan even more.

The new study, published in the Archives of Dermatology, surveyed 415 women from Emory University and the Atlanta area. The women ranged in age from 18 to 71, but most were younger than 26 (the average age of the group was 28), and most were fair complected — “very white and white,” according to the study.

Nearly half of all women surveyed had used a sunless tanning product in the previous year, including self-applied lotions or foams as well as professionally done spray tans. Seventy percent said they had tanned in the sun at least once, 26% said they had used a tanning bed, and 25% had done both.

Overall, younger women were more likely than older ones to have used a sunless tanning product. Women who used the products were also much more likely than nonusers to have sunbathed or used a tanning bed. Nonusers were more likely not to have tanned at all.

The more women used sunless tanners, however, the less they laid in the sun or in a tanning bed. Using a sunless product reduced real sunbathing by 37% and tanning-bed use by 38%. Even relatively infrequent use of sunless tanning products — five times a year or less — was associated with reductions in intentional UV exposure.

The authors concluded:

Thus, we do not necessarily have to convince our patients to use STPs [sunless tanning products] daily, a task that many might find cumbersome, to reduce intentional UVR exposure. If we can persuade them to use STPs periodically or before special occasions, when they may otherwise choose to visit a tanning bed or a sunny beach, we may be able to significantly alter UVR tanning behaviors.

It’s a key finding. Although women generally know that UV exposure boosts their risk of cancer and skin wrinkling, they still covet that sun-kissed glow. More than 90% of women in the current survey said they thought tanned skin looked better than pale skin, and nearly 80% said they felt better about themselves when they were tan.

“[W]e would prefer that people were nicely pale and pasty, but it’s just not the way it is — people want to be tan,” Dr. Jonette Keri, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told HealthDay. “We need to get away from the idea that a tan is healthy. But if you want a tan, sunless tanning products are not a bad way to go.”