From Our 2011 Archives

Use of Sunless Tanners May Cut Exposure to UV Radiation

People Who Use Self-Tanners May Cut Back on Sun Bathing, Tanning Beds

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 19, 2011 -- Women who often use sunless tanners -- those creams and sprays that fake a tan -- may reduce their sunbathing time and tanning bed use, according to a new study.

"Using the sunless tanners can change tanning behaviors," says researcher Suephy C. Chen, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine. "People who used the sunless tanners decreased the number of times they laid out or went to tanning booths."

In the study, nearly 37% of people who used sunless tanning products and sunbathed reported they cut down their sunbathing time. And 38% who used sunless tanners and tanning beds cut back on the tanning bed sessions.

The study is published online in the Archives of Dermatology.

Sunless Tanners: Doctors Debate

"There is a controversy among dermatologists about whether to promote sunless tanning," Chen says. "Some think it sends a message that tanning is OK."

Others are more pragmatic, she says. They figure many people won't give up trying to tan, so they should point them to safer options that don't carry a risk of skin cancer.

Nearly 93% of the 415 women Chen polled said tanned skin is more attractive than pale. Nearly 80% said they feel better about themselves when tan.

Chen's team set out to discover if using the sunless tanning products would reduce exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and to tanning beds.

More than 2 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S. In 2010, more than 68,000 new cases of the more deadly skin cancer, melanoma, were found, according to the American Cancer Society.

Sunless Tanning Study Details

Chen's team interviewed women aged 18 to 71 from the Emory University campus and the surrounding community. The average age was about 28. Most of the women had fair skin, classified as white or very white.

While 201 women used self tanners; 214 did not. Those who used the self-tanners had an average age of 27.

Those who used sunless tanning products were more likely also to tan in the sun and in tanning beds. However, Chen found, the more they used the sunless tanning, the more likely they were to reduce the use of sunbathing or tanning beds.

While the decline is welcome, Chen wishes it were a greater decline.

The researchers did not specify which types of sunless tanning products the women used. Some used do-it-yourself products at home and others got their spray tans at salons. "The overwhelming majority did it at home," Chen says. They studied only women because they are the primary users of the sunless tanning products.

Sunless Tanning Study Is 'Powerful'

"This is a very powerful study," says Jeffrey S. Dover, MD, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University, and a Boston-area dermatologist. He reviewed the study for WebMD but was not involved in the research.

The findings are a welcome relief from all the negative skin cancer news, such as increases in skin cancers among younger people, says Dover, a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology.

The finding that most women in Chen's study think they look better with a tan is an important message for dermatologists, Dover says. Instead of discouraging patients from tans altogether, he says, they can point to the good news. "The positive message here is sunless tanning is safe; tanning beds and going to the beach is not."

One warning: Barbara Reed, MD, a Denver dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado Hospital, Denver, says rashes have been reported by some using the products. The FDA cautions users not to inhale the sunless tanning creams and lotions.

In most sunless tanning products, the active ingredient is DHA (dihydroxyacetone). It reacts with the cells found in the outermost skin layer to darken the appearance of the skin temporarily.

SOURCES: Suephy Chen, MD, associate professor of dermatology, Emory University School of Medicine and Atlanta VA Medical Center.Jeffrey S. Dover, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Boston-area dermatologist and spokesman, American Academy of Dermatology.Sahn, R. Archives of Dermatology, online Dec. 19, 2011.Barbara Reed, MD, Denver dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology, University of Colorado Hospital, Denver.

©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.