Tanning is dangerous, and the majority of the population knows it is. But why do tanning salons continue to attract customers despite the general public’s awareness of the dangers associated with tanning? And why do we still see individuals laying on the beach, actively tanning their skin? Tanning is like following a poor diet. You know it’s not the best idea to have that piece of cake at your neighbour’s barbecue, or to stop by the drive-through on your way home from work. But why do you still do it? I’ll let you answer that.

If you read our previous post, The Science Behind Your Suntan, you’ll know that tanning is a result of your skin cells sensing danger from UV radiation. Melanin is redistributed in an attempt to protect cellular DNA. When you expose yourself to UV radiation while tanning, either indoors or outdoors, you increase your risk of developing skin cancer and experiencing premature aging. Just because you don’t get a sunburn doesn’t mean you aren’t damaging your skin.

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The American Academy of Dermatology surveyed a group of adults online regarding sun safety. Data was extracted for women 18-34 years old. 71% of the women knew that tanning is unhealthy, 66% knew that acquiring a base tan to protect against sunburn is unhealthy, and 98% knew that skin cancer can be lethal¹. Men were not as aware of the dangers, however – only 56% of the men surveyed knew that tanning is unhealthy and only 54% knew that acquiring a base tan to protect against sunburn is unhealthy².

But the question remains: what motivates people to tan? Some young adults say they tan because it boosts their confidence. Others say they like how a tan conceals acne and blemishes³. So do these individuals really prioritize self-esteem over health? Yes – but chances are, they don’t mean to.

According to the late Sigmund Freud, we have both conscious and unconscious thoughts. We are aware of our conscious thoughts but unaware of our unconscious thoughts, despite their effects on our behaviour⁴. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that when people are consciously aware of the dangers of tanning, they are less likely to tan. However, when these thoughts about tanning-associated risks become unconscious ones, they may be more likely to tan⁵. This is because tanning can boost self-esteem, and increased self-esteem has been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety surrounding death⁶. Perhaps we should be constantly reminded of the dangers of tanning to avoid an unconscious motivation to tan.

It’s human nature to want to fit in with your group of peers, and this can mean choosing to tan if the social norm is having tanned skin. If the group as a whole is uneducated about the risks of tanning or disregards the dangers and chooses to tan regardless, individuals may feel pressured to do the same. We should be actively trying to change our social norms if we want to put an end to tanning and its related ailments. It may be a while before media outlets start to hype the beauty of pale skin, but baby steps are key – reading and sharing this post is one.

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After leaving this page, you probably won’t feel the urge to tan, but in a week’s time, if this information has been stored away in your unconscious mind, you might. Hopefully, you’ll recall the dangers of tanning, and decide to protect yourself from harmful UV rays. We should continue to educate ourselves and others on the dangers of UV-induced tanning, all the while encouraging everyone to embrace their natural skin colours. After all, as Dr. Lisa Kellett told the Globe and Mail, “your goal in life should be to be happy, healthy and pale.”⁷

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. (2016). New American Academy of Dermatology PSA highlights dangers of tanning. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  2. American Academy of Dermatology. (2016). Survey: Men’s skin cancer knowledge lags behind women’s. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  3. Susik, K. (2014). Young People Continue To Tan, Despite Clear Health Dangers. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  4. Cherry, K. (2015). The Structure of the Mind According to Freud. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  5. Clay, R. A. (2015). The link between skin and psychology. American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, 46(2):56. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  6. Routledge, C. (2009). Tanning is a (Psychological) Cure for Death. Retrieved July 6, 2016
  7. Racco, M. (2016). Mean screens: Why do sunscreens have a bad rep? Retrieved July 6, 2016