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February 8, 2018 - MCI researchers dig into tanning practices

Gassman tanning DHA.jpg

(In this image, melanoma cells treated with dihydroxyacetone, the active ingredient in sunless tanning products. Cells are killed as a result of exposure.)


Talk about a dilemma. It’s widely acknowledged that too much sun can cause melanoma. But people like the look of a tan, so they switch to tanning beds.

Alas, that’s just as bad as baking on the beach.

So they switch to tanning creams and lotions and sprays.

But wait. Nobody knows exactly what effects they may cause.

And still, a tan seems a fit and attractive look.

Recognizing the widespread desire for a tan look and understanding the known dangers and potential pitfalls, University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute researchers Natalie Gassman, Ph.D., and Casey Daniel, Ph.D., have set out to learn more.

Daniel’s work focuses on tanning behaviors; Gassman’s on the effects of the chemicals in tanning products. The two coordinate their work, trying to ensure that efforts to nudge those in search of an attractive look don’t push them from the frying pan into the fire.

And their work is getting wide notice.

The two have had four papers accepted in the past year: a review article about indoor tanning behaviors in the journal Preventive Medicine;  a paper on tanning for the American Academy of Dermatology; a basic science paper about the effects of dihydroxyacetone on cells, and a study of male tanning behaviors in the Journal of Community Health.

Their work is based on the reported tanning behaviors of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of South Alabama. The pair, along with their collaborator Dr. Marcus Tan, MBBS, currently at Vanderbilt University, surveyed all enrolled students and received more than 3,000 responses.

Tanning salons everywhere

Though it’s hard to imagine college students being unaware of the dangers of sun and tanning bed exposure, many either don’t know or, more likely, aren’t concerned, Daniel says. And many presume that tanning beds wouldn’t be available if they weren’t safe.  She says other researchers have discovered, for example, that in some college towns, there are more indoor tanning facilities than McDonald’s restaurants.

In their study of tanning behavior by men, findings indicated that 37 percent engage in indoor or sunless tanning and that 25 percent use two or more tanning methods.

Moreover, girls ages 12 to 18 use sunless tanning products because they’re widely available — at grocery and convenience stores, for example — while tanning bed use can be more difficult, since laws in some places are restrictive. In Alabama, those under 16 are prohibited from using tanning beds without parental consent.

“You can take away the ability to get tanning products, but you can’t take away the desire to be tan,” says Daniel. Magazines feature “golden brown goddesses. Tan is what you want to be; it’s associated with beautiful.”

Studies have found men, too, can believe that a tan masks other defects, making a few extra pounds less noticeable, says Gassman, with a common sentiment being “Fat looks better tan.”

“You can’t fight that with legislation,” says Daniel, but legislation might be able to help. Just delaying the age at which young people can buy such products might get them to a time when they are less affected by peer pressure, for example.

Skin cancer on the rise

It’s important to have facts, however, because it’s a problem that’s becoming worse.

“Melanoma is on the rise, especially among young women,” says Gassman, citing an increase greater than 250 percent reported in a recent analysis of cancer statistics.  For young people, it’s more common than the next four cancers combined.

“But we don’t know how to point them to sunless products — and — are we diverting them to something safer or to something with different consequences down the road.”

While Daniel works on behavioral studies, Gassman began lab research, putting the active ingredient from sunless tanning products — dihydroxyacetone — on living cells to study the effect.

“And it killed them,” Gassman says.

“We were putting on concentrations a little higher than those in off-the-shelf products, and it’s killing the cells,” she says. Her results are similar to those in other researchers’ studies, and she is actively seeking grants for further research.

“We want to make sure we’re diverting them to something better or safer,” she says. “And if it’s not safer, we need to tell them the consequences.”

“Based on our studies, we have to accept that people want to be tan,” says Daniel. “If we can’t get them to stop, then we want to know what’s the best way to be tan.  We know that indoor tanning is bad and definitely associated with an increased risk of cancer. Since we know that’s definitely harmful, we want to promote a safer alternative.”

More research on the way

Spray-on products pose even more questions, the researchers say, because there’s little if any data about the effect of inhaling the products. Mouth guards, eye guards and nose plugs may be available at a spray tanning facility, for example, but who knows whether anyone uses them?

“People think it wouldn’t be available if it were harmful,” says Daniel. “I want there to be safe alternatives.”

Teaming with MCI chemist Marie Migaud, Ph.D., Gassman is now working to understand how the active ingredients in tanning products kill cells.

“Hopefully there will be some good mechanistic data coming in the next couple of years showing how it comes into cells and changes metabolic reprogramming,” says Gassman. “We don’t have that evidence yet, but we know the chemical kills cells; we’ve showed that robustly. Now we need to know how is it killing and whether we can we prevent it.”

Strategies to be safe

As they pursue their studies, the two researchers offer some strategies for those who would be tan:

  • Remember that it’s never too late to begin prevention.
  • Understand that every time you use a tanning bed, it increases your melanoma risk.
  • Learn how to apply sunscreen, how often to reapply it and what SPF to choose.
  • As in all things, remember that moderation is key.  If you choose to tan, use the least possible exposure to sun, sun substitutes or tanning products.

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