THURSDAY, May 30, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- In their pursuit of a golden glow, young American women say that beauty concerns, not health worries, will determine how willing they are to use so-called sunless tanning products, a new survey finds.
The poll of 182 white female college students (just shy of 20 years on average) gets at the heart of a public health quandary: Warnings about the long-term health risks associated with sun-worshipping pale in comparison with the powerful drive to conform to the current norms of beauty.
"It's a question of confidence," said study lead author Jeong-Ju Yoo, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "Sunless tanning products like bronzers, tanning creams or lotions are a much safer alternative to accomplish tanned skin than the use of tanning beds or the sun outdoors."
Consumers are reluctant to adopt these products because they're not convinced they'll get the result they want that way, said Yoo. "And because even though actual tanning is not perceived as safe, it has a clearly perceived benefit of being an easier and more familiar way to get the look and color people want," he added.
Excess sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. Rates of melanoma -- the potentially deadly form of skin cancer -- have risen in the United States for three decades, according to the American Cancer Society. Among young adults, melanoma is one of the more common cancers. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, which are usually benign but can be disfiguring, are also increasing.
Alarms about skin cancer risk and premature aging from unprotected ultraviolet (UV) sunlight exposure, indoors or outdoors, fall on deaf ears. Tanning booths are frequented by upwards of 1 million Americans, with the American Academy of Dermatology Association, which opposes their use, estimating nearly 70 percent of such users are women, most between 16 and 29 years of age.
Sunless tanning products -- lotions, gels, creams and pills associated with risk-free bronzing -- are considered a potential solution. Already, Americans account for half of all over-the-counter self-tanning product sales worldwide. But Yoo's survey results suggest that getting the majority of women to make the switch remains an uphill battle.
Yoo, who outlined his findings in a recent issue of the journal Household and Personal Care Today, found that women seem to view sunless tanning as a cosmetic "complement" to UV exposure, rather than a wholesale substitute.
Concerns that fake tanners could result in a streaked or unnatural-looking tan were generally found to trump any health motivations that might drive women to seek out sunless alternatives. Bronzers, often considered a cosmetic rather than a self-tanning product, were regarded more favorably than other types of tanners.
"The problem," said Yoo, "is that the benefits of getting the tan are immediate. But the negative effect of UV exposure is something you see at a much later point in life."
Emphasizing quality might help boost acceptance of sunless tanning products among young women, Yoo added. "One, we need to assure them that they're safe, that they won't get an allergic reaction or skin irritation. And two, we need to increase confidence that they are a convenient alternative to getting the color women want," Yoo said.
Dr. Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said sunless tanning products should be only one part of a two-pronged public health message.
"Yes, for a lot of young people who really want to look tan it's a lot safer to use one of these products than to go out and tan," she said. And some products provide a pretty realistic-looking tan, she said. "I've had patients coming into the office who I think are really tan, and it turns out to be fake," she said.
"But a better situation," Stein added, "is for there to be a cultural shift away from the desire to be tan to begin with."
The notion that tanned skin is attractive dates only to the 1920s. That perception could change, she suggested. "A good thing is that now there are a lot of actresses or models who are looking lighter and healthier and are out there without a tan," she said. "So increasingly we have more and more role models for young women who have great-looking natural skin. And that's very helpful."
For more on skin cancer risk, visit the American Academy of Dermatology.