People who frequently tan themselves (whether by the sun, tanning beds or sprays) are more likely to have body image concerns than non-tanners, according to a new study.

Published in Science Daily, the Baylor University study found that ‘frequent tanners’ are more likely to try risky weight-loss methods and have cosmetic surgery, as well as get tattoos and piercings, than those who tan only occasionally or not-at-all.

The study also found that:

  • Frequent tanners who expose themselves to UV rays through sunbathing or tanning beds are more likely to engage in a wider range of risky appearance-related behaviours (including extreme weight control methods such as diet pills, self-induced vomiting, laxatives and diuretics) than infrequent tanners or spray tanners.
  • Infrequent tanners, as well as ‘safe’ tanners who seek to achieve an ideal tan without UV exposure (ie, using sprays, lotions and/or bronzers) are much less likely to engage in behaviours that can have “negative” stereotypes (eg, tattoos and piercings) but they are willing to try other risky appearance-related behaviours.

Report author Jay Yoo, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, said frequent-tanners (regardless of whether they are tanned by UV light from the sun, UV light from a tanning bed or methods such as tanning sprays that do not involve UV light) showed significantly higher willingness to engage in risky appearance-related behaviours.

Therefore, he concluded that “excessive tanning can serve as a possible sign of overt concern over body image, with vulnerability to greater health risks”.

“Most skin cancer prevention campaigns have emphasised avoidance of getting sunburned, reducing UV exposure and applying sunscreen, but they have neglected the individual’s experience with social and appearance concerns.”

Yoo suggested that intervention strategies adapted for healthcare providers to reduce UV exposure and skin cancer could use stigmatisation, “perhaps through images of tattooed or pierced individuals who also are tanned”, to discourage tanning.

“A negative stigma attached to UV exposure can create ambivalence in our society about achieving a tanned appearance,” he said.

“This could decrease the popularity of tanning in much the same way the negative stereotyping of smoking and education about its health risks have reduced the number of people who smoke.”

He suggested tanning could also be stigmatise by stressing the health and appearance consequences – “the tanning that makes me attractive now may be counteracted for the long haul because at 50 or 60, I may have leathery skin”.