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Armed with a fake tan, government-funded researchers have found they can get women to cut back on sunbathing.
The message is an old one, despite the new looks: too much of the sun's ultraviolet radiation will turn your skin into a crinkly patch of leather and up your cancer risk.
And there is room for improvement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of the skin cancers diagnosed every year in the U.S. -- more than one million -- are sun-related. The deadliest kind, melanoma, kills about 8,700 people each year.
So U.S. researchers tested whether offering sunbathing women free samples of tanning lotion and sunscreen could heighten awareness of the harms.
They set up a tent on a beach and invited 250 women in. Half of them got free cosmetics samples unrelated to skin health, while research assistants -- self-tanned, but without financial ties to manufacturers -- handed out sunless tanners along with a bit of skin cancer education to the others.
"Many people find a tanned appearance to be physically attractive and combating that with a health message is difficult," Sherry Pagoto, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, told Reuters Health by e-mail.
"Instead of trying to talk people out of wanting to be tan, we decided to encourage them to use sunless tanning as a healthier alternative."
And the ruse worked -- at least to some degree. After two months, the women given sunless tanners reported a 33 percent decrease in sunbathing, compared to 10 percent in the control group.
They also got fewer sun burns and wore more protective clothing, although those effects had vanished when they were contacted one year later.
Pagoto's findings appear in the Archives of Dermatology. She said the active ingredient in tanning lotions -- called dihydroxyacetone -- has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1973, with no harms reported.
While prices vary widely, some tanning lotions cost less than $10.
However, the FDA has not green-lighted the ingredients in tanning pills, which may in fact be harmful, according to the American Cancer Society.
Dr. June Robinson, a dermatologist who wrote an editorial on the findings, told Reuters Health tanning lotions had improved considerably over in recent years.
"I feel comfortable recommending them," said Robinson, who added she has no industry ties. "What many people do at this time of year is think about indoor tanning. Instead try to pick up a sunless tanner."
Robinson, of Northwestern University in Chicago, said she was more reluctant to recommend the sprays, which might be inhaled.
Using sunless tanners is not a foolproof recipe for fewer sunburns, however.
According to a new survey, also published in the Archives of Dermatology, about one in 10 U.S. adolescents say they use tanning products. But that doesn't mean they use more sunscreen or limit their UV exposure. In fact, teens who use sunless tanners also spend more time in tanning beds and tend to get more sunburns.
"People who really want to be tan should strongly consider using sunless tanning instead of tanning booths or sunbathing," said Pagoto. "Melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer, is the #2 cancer diagnosed in young women, and it is highly associated with (ultraviolet radiation) exposure via the sun or tanning booths."