By Anne Harding
Tired of hearing that tanning is bad for you? Click on over to YouTube. According to a study published Monday in Archives of Dermatology, videos touting the benefits of roasting one’s skin in a tanning bed outnumber those warning of ultraviolet dangers by nearly 3 to 1 on YouTube.
So, what's the problem? Ultraviolet-light exposure from tanning beds and booths is just as likely to cause skin cancer and wrinkles as the real thing, the scientific community now agrees.
“The moral of the story is people shouldn’t be getting health-care information from YouTube, and this is coming from a guy who loves YouTube,” says James Spencer, MD, a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Fla., and an American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) spokesman.
In all, 28 U.S. states have laws regulating indoor tanning businesses; those laws require that businesses warn of health risks, though enforcement is spotty at best. While the indoor tanning industry cannot legally make health claims to customers, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so on YouTube, Dr. Spencer points out.
Inspired by two recent investigations—which looked at how immunization safety and tobacco use are portrayed on YouTube—Eric W. Hossler, MD, a dermatologist at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., and his colleague Michael P. Conroy, MD, decided to take a look at videos that featured indoor tanning.
Dr. Hossler and Dr. Conroy found 72 YouTube videos that commented on the pros and cons of tanning beds or booths; of those, 49 videos (68%) had a positive spin, with 47 citing “appearance” as a benefit of indoor tanning.
Only 17 videos were negative; nine named sunburn as a risk, eight mentioned skin cancer, three talked about wrinkles, and another three complained of “lack of cleanliness of tanning salons, booths, and/or beds.” Twenty-five of the videos were ads for tanning salons, while just one was sponsored by the AAD. (The professional group has since put up three more.)
Nevertheless, “traditional medicine has to recognize that messages on health are being communicated in novel ways," says Kumanan Wilson, MD, a researcher in public health policy at the Ottawa Health Research Institute in Canada.
Dr. Wilson, who helped author an analysis of YouTube information on immunization published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, says he and his colleagues found the anti-vaccine videos were a lot slicker and more attention-grabbing than videos from the pro-vaccine forces, which tended to be rather dull.
While indoor tanning risks don’t carry the emotional freight of the vaccine debate for most people, misinformation about tanning can still be damaging, largely because people simply don’t know whether tanning beds and booths are dangerous, Dr. Wilson says. Getting hip to YouTube is something the AAD and other public health groups must begin to do if they want to keep up with better-funded groups like the indoor tanning lobbyists, he adds.
This means making videos that are “a bit more nuanced, maybe a little funny,” and “not looking like a bunch of old people lecturing,” Dr. Wilson says. “That’s the way people have to start thinking about this.”