Sunless tanning — whether with lotions, bronzers or tanning pills — has been promoted as an effective substitute to dodge the health risks of ultraviolet (UV) rays, but if the products don’t provide the perfect tan, young women will not use them, according to a Baylor University researcher.

‘The feeling is, ‘I tan, I feel good, I’ll look good tomorrow . . . What’s health?’ ’ said Jay Yoo, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. He conducted a study of 182 caucasian female college students, with an average age of 19.7 years. In the study, published in the current issue of Household and Personal Care Today, they indicated that their appearance was the primary motivation.

‘The study confirms that targeting appearance-conscious consumers, in particular young women, will be successful, as long as the quality of the tan is promising,’ he said.

US consumers account for 50% of global sales for over-the-counter self-tanning products. Young women, who are the most frequent users, are not concerned about skin cancer unless they see it in themselves, a family member, or someone else they know, Yoo said. ‘And women aged 19–22 aren’t worried about wrinkles and premature ageing.’

Study findings

Participants were given a questionnaire listing 14 statements about appearance and asked to answer them on a five-point scale ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Those who strongly agreed with such statements as ‘homely people have a hard time finding happiness’ and ‘I should do whatever I can to always look my best’, were more likely to use all sunless tanning items mentioned in the study, claimed Yoo.

Young women in particular, who are more frequent users of tanning creams, gels, lotions, and other products, see sunless tanning as a complement to UV tanning, but it should be promoted by manufacturers as ‘a substitute more than a complement,’ Yoo said.

The study showed that use of tanning creams, lotions and bronzers was more significant than other products — perhaps because some participants view bronzers more as cosmetics and because tanning gels and pills have not yet penetrated the market and may not be viewed as an alternative to UV tanning.

Participants’ attitudes toward bronzers (powders/moisturisers) was the most positive, followed by tanning lotions, creams, sprays, ‘fake tanners’ (such as towelettes), gels and pills. Shortcomings that might hinder the use of sunless products included streakiness or an unnatural look or colour.

Yoo believes understanding consumer attitudes towards the use of sunless tanning products is also important for the promotion of public health.

Previous research supported the notion that sunless tanning products became popular as public awareness about skin cancer increased and people decreased their amount of exposure to UV rays of the sun or tanning beds. But recent studies have also shown that other reasons include avoiding wrinkles, sun spots, sunburn or discomfort from being in the sun.

‘In order to increase the use of the products as a safer alternative, it’s important for manufacturers to find what will actually trigger use,’ Yoo explained. ‘For some, it’s ‘Appearance, appearance, appearance’, but for others, the enjoyment of getting a tan can come from playing sports or engaging in outdoor social activities.

‘For those people, tanning products should be idealised as a lifestyle choice by framing them as a fashion phenomenon or as something that plays an important part in those social and leisure activities, rather than using them indoors.’

While sunless tanning products provide a safe alternative to UV tanning, people should be mindful that sunscreen should also be used.