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Knight JM, Kirincich AN, Farmer ER, Hood AF. Awareness of the Risks of Tanning Lamps Does Not Influence Behavior Among College Students. Arch Dermatol. 2002;138(10):1311–1315. doi:10.1001/archderm.138.10.1311
Awareness of the risks of artificial tanning influences tanning behavior among college students.
To correlate the prevalence of tanning lamp use, the perceived benefits and risks associated with UV exposure, and knowledge about skin cancer among university students.
A survey was designed and administered to college students seeking "walk-in" care at a university student health center from September 7, 1999, through September 30, 1999.
A large midwestern public university student health center.
Undergraduate and graduate students attending the student health center for any medical condition.
Main Outcome Measure
Completion of the survey.
Of the surveyed students, 47% had used a tanning lamp during the preceding 12 months. Female students were more common users than male students. Of the students surveyed, 39% reported never having used tanning lamps. More than 90% of users of tanning lamps were aware that premature aging and skin cancer were possible complications of tanning lamp use.
Despite adequate knowledge of the adverse effects of UV exposure, university students freely and frequently use tanning lamps, primarily for desired cosmetic appearance. To alter this risky behavior will require a fundamental change in the societal belief that tans are attractive and healthy.
DESPITE THE fact that tanning lamp use has been associated with nonmelanoma skin cancer and cutaneous melanoma,1,2 it is estimated that nearly 25 million Americans artificially tan each year.3 Several organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology and the British Photodermatology Group, have publicly discouraged the practice of artificial tanning,4 and the American Medical Association has adopted a resolution requesting a ban on the sale and use of artificial tanning equipment for nonmedical purposes.5
Previously published studies6-8 have examined the attitudes and characteristics of various populations of individuals who use UV light (UVL) beds, booths, and lamps (henceforth referred to as tanning lamp use). These studies deal with adults or adolescents in the United States or other countries. A 1997 American Academy of Dermatology telephone survey inquiring about skin cancer knowledge and sun-related behavior in a general population in the United States showed that the regular use of tanning lamps had increased during a 10-year period. This occurred despite educational efforts by the American Academy of Dermatology and others.9 The researchers also concluded that young adults, and especially young women, are particularly likely to engage in the high-risk behavior of artificial tanning.
This study determines the prevalence of tanning lamp use, the perceived benefits and risks associated with UV exposure, and knowledge about skin cancer among students in a large midwestern public university. If, as dermatologists, we are to develop effective strategies to educate Americans about sun safety, we believe it is important to understand the beliefs and practices of young adults, particularly those who are in a learning climate and, therefore, potentially educable.
Members of the Department of Dermatology and the Bowen Research Center, Indiana University School of Medicine, developed a multiple-choice questionnaire. The survey was designed to assess student perceptions regarding tanning lamp use, the frequency of tanning lamp use among those surveyed, and the occurrence of adverse reactions to artificial UVL exposure. Inquiries were made regarding age, sex, and family history of cutaneous disease. Students were asked to classify their skin type using the Fitzpatrick10 classification that was provided on the questionnaire. The students were asked a series of questions regarding the appearance of pigmented lesions to determine if they could identify certain characteristics that should warrant medical attention. The region of the country in which students were raised was also assessed; regions were divided according to the US Census Bureau classification scheme into Northeast, North Central, Southern, and Western. Permission to administer the questionnaire was obtained from the Indiana University School of Medicine Institutional Review Board, the Indiana University–Bloomington Human Subjects Committee, and the Health Center Research Committee.
With the assistance and full support of health center faculty and staff, questionnaires were administered to undergraduate and graduate students seeking "walk-in" care at the Indiana University Student Health Center, Bloomington, from September 7, 1999, through September 30, 1999. Questionnaires were distributed by nursing assistants and triage secretaries to each student entering the clinic waiting area. Surveys were self-administered; there was no time limitation on, and no incentive offered for, document completion.
Table 1 shows a frequency distribution of our surveyed population. Self-reported skin types are also listed. The sample included 147 male students and 342 female students. Of the sample, 82% were between the ages of 17 and 22 years.
About half of the students reported using a tanning lamp at least once during the past year; this population will be referred to as current users. Of the sample, 15% reported having used a tanning lamp before, but not during, the past year (referred to as past users). The duration of treatments, lamp type, and intensity data were not collected because this was a recall study, and the data would not be reliable. Fewer than half of the students reported never having used a tanning lamp (referred to as never users).
Students were asked 4 questions regarding their knowledge of the criteria for concern for skin cancer and pigmented lesions that should warrant physician attention. These questions were based on the ABCDs of melanoma detection: "To the best of your knowledge, is an asymmetrical mole something to bring to your doctor's attention?" "To the best of your knowledge, is a mole with an irregular border something to bring to your doctor's attention?" "To the best of your knowledge, is a mole that varies in color something to bring to your doctor's attention?" "To the best of your knowledge, is a mole that is greater than 6 mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser) something to bring to your doctor's attention?" Correct identification of suspicious lesion characteristics earned 1 point, and all incorrect or undecided responses earned 0 points. A cumulative score was calculated for each respondent. The mean score for never users was 3.42; past users, 3.55; and current users, 3.25. The average cumulative score of the 3 groups was not significantly different (analysis of variance, P = .11).
Table 2 shows a comparison between current and past tanning lamp users. Female students comprised 84% of current users and 70% of past users (P<.001). Most current users (93%) were between the ages of 17 and 22 years, while 69% of past users were in the same age group (P<.001). Significantly more current users believed that tanning lamps were safe than did past users (P<.001).
Most past and current users reported that skin cancer was a possible complication of tanning lamps. Similarly, 93% of both groups believed that premature aging was a possible complication of tanning lamps. There was no significant difference between current and past users regarding family history of skin cancer (P = .87), belief that a tan represents a healthy appearance (P = .12), or the occurrence of adverse effects from tanning beds (P = .07).
Table 3 lists the frequency of reported current user behavior. When questioned about tanning bed use during the past year, more than half (57%) of the current users reported using tanning beds 1 to 5 times in total, 32% reported use 1 to 5 times per month, and 11% reported use 1 to 5 times per week.
When asked about their motivation for tanning lamp use, almost all (92%) of the current users reported using a tanning bed because they enjoyed a tanned appearance, 71% reported use because they could not find time to tan with natural sunlight, and 61% reported use for vacation preparation. Only 12% reported using tanning beds because their friends used them. Similarly, 15% of current users reported using tanning beds for the treatment of skin disease (defined in our study as psoriasis, acne, or dermatitis).
Table 4 shows the odds ratios for all predictor variables in current users, holding skin type constant. Female sex was positively associated with tanning bed use, as were the beliefs that a tan represents a healthy appearance and that tanning beds are safe. Ironically, a family history of skin cancer was positively associated with tanning bed use.
Because we surveyed young adults at a large midwestern university, our population was mildly homogeneous; most of those sampled had either type II or III skin, which potentially reduced the generalizability of our data. Students also self-reported their skin type, which, although commonly used,11 is a potential subjective limitation. Approximately 95% of the distributed questionnaires were completed by the students. No attempt was made to evaluate the population of nonresponders.
Almost half of our population used tanning lamps within the year previous to being surveyed. This value is higher than those reported in previous broad-based studies,9,11 but was expected given our belief that young adults are more apt to engage in high-risk tanning behavior. In our student population, female students were much more likely than male students to be current users. This is higher than the odds ratio for women in the general population, which has been reported as 1.5.9 Most current users were aged 17 to 22 years, while more past users were older. This older age group may benefit from a more extensive education and, therefore, may be more astute toward the risks of artificial UVL exposure. However, 2 previous reports12,13 found no difference between undergraduate and health professional students in their frequency of tanning lamp use.
Our classification scheme to assess frequency of tanning lamp use among current users was designed to correlate with those reported in the literature. Our values were quite consistent with those of a previous US broad-based study.14 Thus, while more of our respondents used tanning beds when compared with the general population, they are not outpacing the general population for frequency of use. However, we believe that our values may have been conservative for 2 reasons. Because our study was conducted toward summer's end, we believe that student responses may have been affected by recall bias; we suspect that the frequency of tanning lamp use may escalate during the colder months. In addition, most of our population reported using tanning lamps for vacation preparation. If these respondents used tanning lamps exclusively for vacation preparation, tanning lamp use might have been reported as 1 to 5 times per year when factually these students used tanning lamps several times in the few weeks before travel. It was casually noted during our study that prevacation package deals are a mainstay of tanning facilities. High-risk tanning behavior, as seen in our population, probably includes those individuals who also engage in excessive outdoor UV exposure. We did not separately attempt to measure the outdoor exposure.
Our young adult population, who were attending college, was exceptionally knowledgeable about the risks of artificial UVL exposure and skin cancer detection. A few current tanning lamp users surveyed believed that tanning beds were safe. This contrasts with a 1999 report,6 which found that 60.4% of tanning lamp users in the 18- to 60-year-old age group believed that tanning salons were not dangerous. Our college student study group probably accounts for some of the differences, and for the entry point being the student health center. It can be surmised from our data then that educational efforts regarding the risks of artificial tanning are reaching young adults. Most current users recognized the development of skin cancers and premature aging as potential complications of tanning lamp use. Regardless of tanning habits, our group was similarly well versed on the characteristics of pigmented lesions that should be brought to a physician's attention.
More than three fourths of the current users polled, however, either believed that tanning lamps are unsafe or are unsure of their safety. Despite Food and Drug Administration recommendations to the contrary, and consistent with reports4,14 regarding the general population, 16% of our respondents reported never using protective goggles while tanning. And, strikingly, students in our study with a positive family history of skin cancer were 1.5 times more likely to use tanning lamps than those without a family history. The dangers of tanning lamp use seem to be widely known, yet have little bearing on behavior patterns. As other investigators7,9,11,12,14,15 have suggested, education alone will probably not alter high-risk tanning habits. Our statistics solidify the notion that education on the dangers of artificial UVL exposure, through media, direct intervention, or personal experience, plays little role in young adults' decisions regarding tanning.
Cosmetic appeal seemed to be the principal motivating factor for tanning lamp use; most students reported that they seek artificial UVL because they enjoy a tanned appearance. In contrast, a few respondents used tanning lamps for the treatment of skin diseases such as acne. Particularly concerning is the assertion by many current users that they used tanning lamps for vacation preparation. As Spencer and Amonette4 reported, this practice is not protective; a tan acquired via indoor tanning provides little defense against subsequent sun exposure, and may actually be cumulatively more damaging to the skin than sun exposure alone.
Our study indicates that the young adult population freely engages in high-risk tanning behavior despite adequate, and even exemplary, knowledge of the risks involved. This demographic group seems much more driven by the perceived immediate cosmetic appearance gained through tanning lamp use than by the potential long-term deleterious complications of artificial UVL exposure. Prevalence rates for other high-risk activities in young adults mirror this concept.16 On questioning in 1995 as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National College Health Risk Behavior Survey,17 29% of college students reported habitually smoking cigarettes, 35% reported episodic heavy drinking, 27% reported drinking alcohol and driving, and only 30% reported using condoms during sexual intercourse. These are all behaviors for which large-scale public education campaigns have long been established.
To effectively decrease the rate of artificial tanning in this high-risk young adult population, it seems that public opinion will have to change regarding what is aesthetically admirable. Our study showed that those who believe that a tan represents a healthy appearance were 5 times more likely to use artificial tanning methods. Almost half of current users believed that a tan represents a healthy appearance, and 25% were undecided. We believe that education, as provided on the dangers of tanning lamp use in this population, is minimally effective, if at all. It will take a concentrated joint effort on behalf of health care organizations, industry, and physicians to bring about an eventual change in the belief that damaging tans are attractive and healthy.
Accepted for publication January 29, 2002.
We thank Jennifer L. Burba and Christopher P. Smith, MPA, for their assistance in statistical analysis; Hugh Jessop, MD, director of Indiana University Student Health Center, and his staff of nurses and physicians for their cooperation with the student survey; and Ginat Mirowski, DMD, MD, for reviewing and critiquing the manuscript.
Corresponding author: Antoinette F. Hood, MD, Department of Pathology and Anatomy, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Lewis Hall, 700 Olney Rd, Room 2070a, Norfolk, VA 23507 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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