Despite Risks, Sun Tans Still Equated With Health

True or false: A tan makes people look better and healthier. More men than women agreed with that in a national survey, says the American Academy of Dermatology.

The survey also showed that women do a better job of protecting their skin from the sun and that more men than women got sunburned last summer.

The telephone survey included 505 men and 508 women aged 18 or older. They were asked about their beliefs and practices about tans and sun protection.

The Sun-Kissed Look

More than half of all men and women said people look better with a tan. That included 69 percent of the men and 61 percent of the women.

Likewise, most people said they thought people look healthier with a tan. Slightly more men than women said so in the survey (60 percent of men and 54 percent of women).

"Despite the fact that we know that there is no such thing as a safe tan, people still associate bronzed skin with beauty and health," says New York University Medical Center dermatologist Darrell Rigel, MD, in a news release.

Then again, those questions were about aesthetics. If golden skin appeals, self-tanners, bronzers, and cosmetics are available (but don't provide sun protection unless SPF is noted).

Sun Protection Savvy

As for sun protection, 77 percent of the women said they were "very" or "somewhat" careful to protect their skin from sun exposure, compared with 62 percent of the men.

More women than men said they used sunscreen often or always when they were going to be out in the sun (66 percent compared with 43 percent). More women also said they often or always tried to stay in the shade when outside for a long period of time (74 percent of the women vs. 64 percent of the men).

However, more men (65 percent) said they wore hats while outside in the sun, compared with 36% of women. More men also said they always dressed for sun protection when they planned to be outside for a long time (32 percent vs. 26 percent for women).

Clothes for Sun Protection

Men tend to wear baseball caps, but wide-brimmed hats are better for screening out the sun, notes Rigel.

"When it comes to protecting themselves with clothing and accessories, both genders are missing an opportunity to significantly reduce their exposure to the sun," he says in the news release.

Most people in the survey said they did not using tanning beds (90 percent of the women and 94 percent of the men). Among those who said they used tanning beds, most (62 percent of woman, 74 percent of men) said it was to get a "base tan" before the summer or a vacation. Dermatologists have repeatedly spoken out against base tans, says the news release.

Knowledge Gap

Most people said they knew that getting a tan from the sun can damage skin (94 percent of the women and 89 percent of the men.)

More women than men said they knew that childhood sunburns raise the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult (81percent of women vs. 70 percent of men). More women also knew that having five or more sunburns in a lifetime doubles the risk of skin cancer (77 percent of women and 64 percent of men).

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., says the American Cancer Society (ACS). More than a million nonmelanoma skin cancer cases and about 59,600 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, says the ACS.

The numbers of skin cancer cases are increasing, which may be due to increased exposure to UV radiation from sun, tanning beds, and sum lamps, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Tips to Avoid Sun Damage

The American Academy of Dermatology offers these tips for skin protection from the sun:

—Plan outdoor activities that avoid the sun's strongest rays.
—As a general rule, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
—Wear protective covering such as wide-brimmed hats, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts to reduce sun exposure.
—Wear sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV-ray protection.
—When outdoors, always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or greater, which will block UVA and UVB rays.
—Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure.

By Miranda Hitti , reviewed by Brunilda Nazario , MD

SOURCES: American Academy of Dermatology, "2005 Skin Cancer Survey." News release, American Academy of Dermatology. American Cancer Society: "Skin Cancer Facts." American Academy of Dermatology: "The Darker Side of Tanning."