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New Survey Shows Many Still Believe a Tan is a Sign of Health

  [ 156 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • April 29, 2002

If you think you look better with "a little sun," even though you are aware of the health risks of overexposure to the sun, or think wearing sunscreen helps you prevent sunburn and get a good "base tan," you're not alone. According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), many people have misconceptions about appropriate sun safety precautions, including a great number who still believe that getting a tan is healthy.

Speaking at the American Academy of Dermatology's Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month Press Conference, dermatologist Mark Naylor, M.D., Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, Oklahoma City, OK, discussed the survey results and how attitudes and behaviors about the sun are changing.

In a random sample telephone survey of 803 households within the continental U.S., 95 percent of survey respondents recognized that sunburns are a health risk for children and teens, and 93 percent acknowledged that too much exposure to the sun is unhealthy, but 81 percent still think they look good after having been out in the sun. In fact, more than half of those surveyed reported having gotten a tan in the past year.

"People are obviously more aware about the fact that 80 percent of a person's lifetime sun exposure can occur before the age of 18, however, there is a disparity between this knowledge and the perceived health benefits of a tan," said Dr. Naylor. "A tan is still considered a standard of beauty and people may believe that avoiding a sunburn by use of sunscreens makes tanning a safe activity and it doesn't. While avoiding a sunburn lessens the risk, it does not avoid it altogether. Tanning with ultraviolet (UV) or natural sunlight under any circumstances will increase cancer risk."

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 1 million new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. It is estimated that 87,900 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer -- in 2002 and approximately 7,400 deaths will be attributed to melanoma this year. At this rate, one person dies of melanoma every hour.

"The number of sun-related cancers continues to rise at an alarming rate. If current trends continue, it is conceivable that they may become the leading cancer-related cause of death among Americans," said Dr. Naylor. "This survey bears out what we previously suspected, that personal beliefs and attitudes underlie the behavior driving this deadly trend. Unfortunately, substantial numbers of Americans still do not respect the dangers of sunlight, and view sun exposure and tanning as healthy activities that enhance personal beauty."

To protect themselves from the sun, 90 percent of respondents always or sometimes wear sunscreen, and 83 percent reported always or sometimes wearing a hat while outdoors.

While sunscreen is designed to reduce ultraviolet (UV) exposure, more than 80 percent of people surveyed believe that sunscreens are used primarily to tan without burning. Substantially fewer (57 percent) agree that sunscreen should be used to avoid tanning.

"Using a sunscreen is popular because it is an easy way to practice sun safety without making a major change in your behavior," said Dr. Naylor. "However, while many people use sunscreen, it's important to reinforce the message that sunscreen should be used to reduce exposure to the sun, and prevent premature aging and skin cancer, not to aid in getting a tan. Using a sunscreen to increase sun exposure during intentional tanning tends to defeat its purpose."

The correct type of sunscreen is important too. The best defense against the sun is a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher, that is reapplied every two hours."

Sunscreen is only one component of a comprehensive sun protection program which includes: Avoiding outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest; Seeking shade whenever possible;

Wearing sun-protective clothing and accessories, such as wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses; and Following the "Shadow Rule" -- if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun's damaging rays are at their strongest and you are likely to sunburn.

Considering the long-term effects of the sun is one factor that separates younger and older respondents. Those younger than 25 are less cautious about the risks of the sun. Nearly half (49 percent) suffered a sunburn in the past year, compared with 21 percent of those over 25.

Across gender lines, men and women express similar views on the risks of the sun. However, men are less likely than women to protect themselves from overexposure to the sun. Only 69 percent of men think sunscreen is necessary when tanning, compared to 80 percent of women. However, men are also less likely to reapply sunscreen (50 percent) and are more likely to have gotten a tan in the past year (68 percent). Women also display a higher awareness that exposure to the sun can cause premature aging (77 percent versus 69 percent).

"Today, people are obviously more aware of the health messages associated with overexposure to the sun and believe they are taking proper precautions to protect themselves," said Dr. Naylor. "Changing behaviors is difficult, and changing attitudes, about the look of a tan or the use of sunscreen, are more challenging, but as the messages regarding the dangers of the sun become widely recognized, people may begin to adapt their lifestyle to accommodate a true sun safety plan."

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