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Tanning salons seek relationships with young clientele through online ads

Indoor tanning is known to cause skin cancer yet indoor tanning businesses actively promote this dangerous behavior on social media, offering discounts and employing relationship marketing tactics, finds a national study performed by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Public health messages about the risks of indoor tanning compete with a multibillion-dollar industry that maximizes young adult consumption with messages including appeals that reduce health concerns, convey social acceptance and highlight psychological benefits.

“Indoor tanning prevention is 25-50 years behind tobacco prevention efforts,” said senior author Lori Crane, Ph.D., of the Colorado School of Public Health. “The surgeon general’s warnings about the health effects of tobacco started in 1964; for indoor tanning it was just two years ago.”

Understanding tanning salon marketing efforts can help the public health community to design and communicate accurate messages about the risks of indoor tanning. Five million Americans develop some form of skin cancer each year, costing over $8 billion to treat.

The study profiles current strategies used by the indoor tanning industry to reach its adolescent and young adult customer base. One-third of white non-Hispanic women age 18-25 use indoor tanning, averaging 28 tanning sessions yearly.

“Any level of indoor tanning is a contributing risk for skin cancer, and tanning just once a month can double the risk of melanoma, the most deadly kind of skin cancer,” Crane said. “All tanning is skin damage; the darkened skin produced by exposure to ultraviolet light is the skin’s reaction to harm.”

Ultraviolet (UV) exposure is the primary preventable risk factor for skin cancer and is considered a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Indoor UV tanning appears responsible for part of the rise in skin cancer over the past several decades among young women. More frequent use, use of higher intensity devices and use over longer periods of time have all been linked to elevated melanoma risk.

Scientists subscribed to social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter in six large US cities: Denver; Austin; Boston; Pittsburgh, Penn. and Akron, Ohio, and analyzed the volume and content of messages received from 38 tanning salons using profiles imitating the online behavior of typical tanners – young white women.

In the 662 social media communications captured in the study, the most common messages related tanning to holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, and/or discount offers. Researchers were surprised to find few health or safety claims in indoor tanning ads.

A large portion of communications from indoor tanning salons had no tanning messages and instead referred to local events, pop culture themes or contained a meme – a humorous image that has been altered in some way. The tanning industry appears to use social media to maintain a presence with their customers and remind them regularly about the possibility of tanning, often without direct reference to their products.

“The idea of getting a base tan at a tanning salon to protect yourself before going to the beach is a misconception,” Crane said. “Using a good sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15-30 or higher is much more protective than a base tan, which has an SPF of only 6.” Crane added that consumers should select sunscreens that provide both UVA and UBV protection.

There are few state or local laws restricting tanning advertisements. Youth bans on indoor tanning currently exist in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

The study appeared in the June issue of Behavioral Translational Medicine.

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