You are here

Traveling this winter? You might want to reconsider your pre-vacation tanning

Photo of tanning bed (IStock credit_Santje09)

Using tanning beds to get that pre-vacation ‘base tan’ is still popular, despite well-documented research that they increase the risk of skin cancer, greatly. Is enough being done to teach users about the risks?

Unlike graphic photos of smoking-related diseases on cigarette packaging – said by many to effectively turn off potential smokers – tanning bed warning labels consist of only words rather than images.

Prof. Jennifer McWhirter and PhD student Sydney Gosselin, the Department of Population Medicine in the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, are looking into new tanning bed labels that will include graphic photos similar to those seen on cigarette packaging. They believe this work will increase awareness of skin damage and cancer risk, while encouraging people to limit or even stop tanning bed use.

“Words aren’t enough to tell people about the skin cancer risk associated with tanning,” says McWhirter. “Some people even believe the misconception that a base tan will protect their skin from the sun. This isn’t true and it’s putting peoples’ health at risk.”

For this research, McWhirter and Gosselin asked 15 tanning bed users in Guelph their opinions on the current federally mandated label. Most reported that the label was too wordy or that they simply hadn’t noticed them at all.

“Many participants told us that the current federal label contains important information, but they wouldn’t actually read or notice it in a tanning salon,” says Gosselin. “By using graphic images and engaging text people will learn more about the risks.”

The researchers found that graphic images which highlighted damage caused to the face from UV exposure and skin cancer treatment was the most effective to discourage indoor tanning.

Most people go to tanning salons to alter their appearance in a way that feels more attractive to them. But, contrary to this, exposure to UV radiation causes irreversible damage that increases the occurrence of things people may not want such as wrinkles and dark spots.

While the close relationship between UV exposure and skin cancer has been researched thoroughly, still 70 per cent of tanning salon websites promote tanning as healthy, natural and safe. Although the use of tanning beds is decreasing, it is still a popular behaviour in Canada.

“There is a culture of misinformation out there and it is really important to address these misconceptions,” says McWhirter. “Instead of allowing health misinformation to circulate, we need to not only control it, but counter it directly by informing people of the health risks.”

Misinformation in health research is common and it can have detrimental effects on overall public health and the healthcare system. Accurate communication of health information is crucial to influence policy and promote healthy populations, McWhirter says.

But, setting guidelines for tanning bed labels isn’t up to researchers, it’s up to the government. McWhirter and her research team will share the findings on effective communication for tanning bed labels with Health Canada in hopes of improving regulations.

Next steps for this research will involve a survey to establish a more in-depth understanding of how people will respond to warning labels with cautionary photos.

McWhirter’s work has identified industry marketing techniques and policy that can effectively increase awareness of the dangers of tanning bed use. Health Promotion Canada recognized her with the Rising Star Award for her exemplary work and strong potential to make future contributions to health promotion in Canada.

McWhirter collaborates with various colleagues in the Department of Population Medicine including Profs. Scott McEwen and Andrew Papadopoulos. Outside collaborators on the warning label research project include Dr. Jennifer Beecker, The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Cheryl Rosen, Head of the Division of Dermatology at Toronto Western Hospital and University Health Network Hospitals, and Seema Mutti-Packer, an Applied Research Consultant with Alberta Health Services.

This project received funding from the Canadian Dermatology Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Article by Samantha McReavy, SPARK, University of Guelph Office of Research Communications.