tanning bed, Image courtesy flickr creative commons, Evil Erin
Tanning Bed, Image courtesy flickr creative commons, Evil Erin Credit: Flickr creative commons, Evil Erin

By Rose Hoban

As lawmakers worked their way through a bill to ban tanning beds for teens under 18 years old last summer, researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill were asking young women what they thought about tanning beds and how often they use them.

And they found a few surprises, including the big revelation that most of the young women who use tanning beds know it can be bad for their skin in the long run, but that it had no effect on how often they used them.

tanning bed, Image courtesy flickr creative commons, Evil Erin
The UNC study found about half of young women had used tanning beds, most starting when they were in high school. Image courtesy: Evil Erin, flickr creative commons

“The big motivator is appearance; they think it makes them look better,” said lead researcher Seth Noar, a faculty member at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications who is associated with the Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC Hospitals.

But he also found an association for some tanning bed users with mood enhancement, and some parallels to tobacco use.

Noar and his students in a health communications class surveyed more than 700 sorority members from UNC. He said that while other studies done on tanning bed use have surveyed only 100 to 200 people, he got assistance from the Pan-Hellenic Society at UNC, which promoted participation in the study in an effort to help its sisters stay healthier.

The survey found that close to half (45 percent) of the young women had used a tanning bed. Of that number, two-thirds had tanned in the past year; the rest were more occasional users.

“The prom ends up being the significant, number-one event that they tanned for the first time for,” said Noar, who found that 80 percent of the women used indoor tanning in high school.

“If you want to do true prevention, that’s the time to intervene,” he said.

But Noar said that other factors influencing tanning bed use were particularly intriguing.

For example: While a majority of women went tanning for the first time with their friends, a significant number started alongside their mothers.

“And we found that women who reported going with mothers the first time were more likely to become regular tanners than women who did not,” Noar said.

The other surprising phenomenon Noar found was that many of the women reported significant mood enhancement from tanning.

“It was the idea that going tanning was relaxing. It lifts one’s spirits, makes someone feel good, and is enjoyable,” he said. “That’s the most potent factor.”

Noar said these findings indicate that some tanners actually develop something like an addiction to indoor tanning.

“There’s some interesting research on the UV light and mood, which might make it more difficult in terms of trying to persuade regular tanners to reduce or stop tanning,” he said.

Noar found such behavior to be eerily similar to tobacco use.

“People know there are risks, [but] they still do it,” he said. “There’s a mood component and, for some, a dependence component.”

“Most tobacco users want to quit, but they’re addicted,” Noar said. “It’s not a perfect parallel, but there are some parallels between tanning and smoking.”

The indoor-tanning industry was launched in the 1970s and gained widespread use in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s only now, Noar said, that dermatologists are seeing the effects in the form of a sharp uptick in young white women being diagnosed with skin cancer and melanoma.

An effort to ban tanning bed use for teens passed the state House of Representatives last summer and will likely be before the Senate during the short legislative session this summer.

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