Not even cancer risk stops millennials from outdoor tanning

Millennials are flying too close to the sun.

Many college-aged millennials are still tanning outdoors despite the risk of skin cancer and are under-informed when it comes to proper sun safety, according to a recent study from Oregon State University-Cascades. And those with low self-esteem and high rates of narcissism are more likely to engage in addictive tanning behavior.

Lead study author Amy Watson and her colleagues set out to learn whether the FDA-mandated “Drug Facts” panel on sunscreen packaging — which lays out the uses, directions, warnings and suggestions to protect your skin from sun — was actually effective at curbing tanning behavior and dispensing knowledge on sunscreen use. What they found, Watson told Moneyish, was that “knowledge does not matter”: They still soaked up rays.

“The purpose of the FDA label is to impart knowledge, but we found that it doesn’t impart knowledge,” Watson said. “And even if it did, knowledge does not change behavior in this context.”

The researchers measured 256 college students’ sun smarts using an 11-question sun-safety knowledge test and found they scored an average of 54 percent — a failing grade — on multiple-choice and true-or-false questions like “When applied correctly SPF 100 is twice as effective as SPF 50”; “Spending time in the sun increases my risk of skin cancer and early skin aging”; and “Under the new FDA regulations, sunscreen products that protect against all types of sun‐induced skin damage will be labeled ‘broad spectrum.’”

The study also shed light on their tanning behaviors: Seven in 10 said they purposely sunbathed outdoors to achieve a tan, for example, while about one in three said having a tan was important to them.

The problem with barraging young people with knowledge, Watson said, is that they’re not making decisions based on rationale and logic. “They’re making decisions based much more on feelings and emotions,” Watson said. “Right now, the association is [that] tan skin is more beautiful and that it is associated with a healthy glow.”

So instead of educating with a Drug Facts panel or disease stats — like, for example, that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world and the large majority of melanomas are caused by sun exposure — a better disincentive for young people might be that “tanned skin is damaged skin and it doesn’t look as good as you think it does,” Watson said.

NYU Langone Health dermatologist Jennifer Stein agreed, citing a study that found appealing to young adults’ sense of vanity was more effective than talking about skin cancer risk. “I think it’s because it’s something that’s more real to you when you’re young and it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to get skin cancer,” she said. “But vanity is something that people are thinking of right now.”

“It’s best to appeal to people by telling them what the effect of the sun is and how their skin will look,” she added. “Think about the people on the beach whose skin looks like shoe leather — that’s because they’ve been sitting in the sun for years, baking their skin. So if you don’t want your skin to look like that, you should protect your skin against the sun.”

Such an approach might work with someone like Kevin Mejia, a 26-year-old Queens resident who says he tans outside in moderation because he likes that “summery look,” and thinks it looks good with a white shirt.

“I think it’ll help raise an eyebrow and maybe as a result action can be taken,” said Mejia, who admitted that he doesn’t know much about the specifics of sunscreen application. “Maybe a good place to start in reaching millennials is at a beauty store or drugstore and really just highlight the skincare section — but also have somebody there pointing out, ‘This is how you should apply sunscreen, this is why it’s important, what are the dangers of not doing it.’”

Indeed, Watson wants to get the word out that sunscreen is vastly underused. The ideal amount is one ounce — about a shot glass’ worth — every two hours. “Fill a shot glass up with sunscreen,” she said, “and then you can fill it up with whatever else you want to after.” Stein also advocates for protective clothing like swim shirts and wide-brimmed hats and staying out of sun’s glare midday when it’s right overhead.

Watson likens the sun-safety campaign to similar ones around cigarette smoking, sugary sodas and texting while driving. The key, she said, is to create “incremental culture changes” around what people view as accepted tanning behavior. “Now if you’re with peers and you start texting and checking your email while you’re driving, they have no problem saying, ‘What are you doing? Stop it,’” Watson said. “There’s been this major shift with peer policing of these behaviors. We definitely want it to just become much more culturally accepted to really be concerned about sun safety.”

“One of the best beauty secrets is protecting your skin from sun damage,” added Stein. “So when I’m talking to young women in their 20s, I say, ‘10 years from now, your friends who are out there frying their skins are going to be trying to reverse the sun damage that you won’t have if you protect yourself now.’”

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