A picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to sun protection.

Call it the “scared straight” approach to sun protection. Ultraviolet (UV) photography lets people glimpse their skin’s hidden sun damage (search) — premature wrinkles and spots waiting to surface.

“Ultraviolet cameras are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and simple to operate,” write researchers in a new study. “This intervention could be offered at most dermatology clinics, student health clinics, and physician’s offices.”

An ultraviolet facial photograph (search), sun care information, and sunless tanning lotion could inspire people to adopt skin-smart sun strategies, say the researchers. These interventions could help discourage the primary motivator for skin cancer behaviors — immediate appearance enhancement.

The researchers encourage everyone to:

—Limit sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

—Wear protective clothing (such as a hat).

—Wear sunscreen with a solar protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.

Soaking Up Sun Damage?

Warm, bright sunshine may feel good, but it can be harsh on the skin. Sun burns aren’t the only problem. The sun’s UV rays can also cause skin cancer.

New cases of skin cancer are growing at a rate of 3-4 percent annually. Melanoma (search) — the most deadly form of skin cancer — is outpacing all other types of cancer, the researchers report.

Sun protection gets lots of publicity. But awareness doesn’t always translate into action.

“Young adults in particular, motivated by the perceived appearance-enhancing benefits of tanned skin, are continuing to receive large amounts of intentional and unintentional exposure to UV radiation,” write psychologist Heike Mahler, PhD, and colleagues. Mahler works at the University of California at San Diego.

Instant Motivation

UV photographs were motivational in Mahler’s study. Nearly 150 college students in Southern California participated. Most were white.

The students filled out two sun protection surveys. The first questionnaire covered current practices; the second asked about future sun care plans.

Many students got a lot of sun. One in five said they had sunbathed for at least an hour during the previous weekend. About 97 percent said they’d been outside for at least an hour during the past week, not counting sunbathing. More than half said they knew someone with skin cancer and more than two out of every five students had at least one family member with skin cancer.

Sunscreen Use Still Lacking

Fewer used sunscreen. They reported wearing sunscreen about two out of three times on their face and about half the time on their bodies when sunbathing. They skipped sunscreen more than half of the time on their face (58 percent) and nearly eight out of 10 times on their bodies when outside but not sunbathing.

The study went a little further for some students. After finishing the first questionnaire, they watched a video about sun protection and had an instant UV photo taken of their face. Next, they saw their pictures and completed the second survey. Some also got a sample of sunless tanning lotion to take home. The researchers also wanted to see if this alternative to sun tanning would increase after the intervention. They were warned that the lotion didn’t offer any sun protection.

Changing Their Ways

The UV photographs made an impact. They prompted more students to step up their sun efforts. The photographed students were also more likely to have told people about what they learned, the study shows.

However in surprise phone calls made one month later, only a third (37 percent) of those who got the sunless tanning lotion used it. Several students said they were afraid it would streak and look orange or unnatural.

Since many people didn’t try the sunless tanning lotion, the results from that part of the experiment were limited. Based on the small numbers who did try it, “this might lead to additional sun protection behaviors,” write the researchers.

Letting people take the UV photographs home could also help, say Mahler and colleagues. They didn’t do that in this study, but the photo could be a lasting reminder to safeguard skin, they say.

Their study appears in the March edition of the Archives of Dermatology.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Mahler, H. Archives of Dermatology, March 2005; vol 141: pp 373-380. News release, JAMA/Archives.