Skin cancer researcher spotlight: How texting is reducing indoor tanning

Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., but it’s also one of the most preventable cancers. One way to protect yourself from skin cancer is to avoid using tanning beds or sun lamps.

According to the World Health Organization, your risk of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—increases by 75% when you begin using tanning beds before age 30. Dr. Darren Mays, Associate Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and a researcher at The Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, saw this problem and decided to test a unique approach to fix it—texting. 

With a research grant awarded to him by the Prevent Cancer Foundation in 2019, Dr. Mays studied whether a text messaging program he created could curb indoor tanning addiction. Read our interview with Dr. Mays to learn more about his research—and see whether texting and tanning go hand in hand: 

Q&A with Dr. Darren Mays

Indoor tanning seems to be a persistent problem among young adults. Can you tell us more about who is tanning and why? What’s the harm of indoor tanning?

Although the prevalence of indoor tanning has decreased in the U.S. in recent decades, it persists as a problem for a few reasons. In recent population survey data, the trends show less indoor tanning in geographic areas that have stricter policies preventing youth access versus those that do not.  

The data also showed that among those who reported indoor tanning, more than 40% reported frequent indoor tanning (10 or more times in a year) and nearly 25% reported indoor tanning 25 times or more in the past year. This pattern of frequent indoor tanning was prevalent in younger adults and suggests that despite a decline in indoor tanning overall, those who continue to indoor tan are doing so frequently. 

Motivations for indoor tanning vary, from perceived benefits to one’s appearance to lack of recognition of the associated risks. Regarding the risks, indoor tanning is consistently associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, including non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers. Any indoor tanning exposure increases your lifetime risk of melanoma by about 20%, and more frequent exposure and exposure at a younger age increases your risk of melanoma even more.

Your research showed that some people who indoor tan can become addicted to indoor tanning similar to how others are addicted to drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Can you share more on why indoor tanning can be addictive?

We and other researchers have studied indoor tanning as a potential addictive behavior. There is a line of research that includes animal studies and human clinical studies demonstrating indoor tanning may produce psychological and physiological rewards like drugs, leading to higher frequency of indoor tanning. Our research focused on young adult women and found that more than 20% of young adult women who reported indoor tanning in the past year met criteria for potential tanning addiction. We also found people had a higher risk of tanning addiction when they had a variation in the dopamine receptor genes (associated with the rewarding effects of drugs) and/or symptoms of depression.

Text messaging programs are becoming an increasingly popular research method—both in the cancer prevention and early detection space and beyond. What gave you the idea to use text messaging to curb indoor tanning addictions?

We developed and tested a text messaging intervention to motivate adult young women to quit indoor tanning. Because most young adults communicate in their daily lives using mobile phones and text messaging, we felt that this communication method aligned well with the needs and preferences of our target population.

Text messaging programs like that have been effective for quitting similar behaviors, like smoking. Our goal was to adapt strategies that have already proven to be successful and use them for indoor tanning cessation in young women.

How did the funding provided by the Prevent Cancer Foundation make a difference in creating an interactive mobile text messaging program to help young women reduce their risk of melanoma?  

Funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation enabled us to put our plans into action. With this funding, we successfully conducted a clinical trial with 265 young adult women who met screening criteria for indoor tanning addiction, and our preliminary findings showed the text messaging intervention nearly doubled the number of participants who reported quitting indoor tanning at the end of the intervention compared with the control group. For those who reported they did not stop indoor tanning, the intervention significantly increased their motivation to quit compared to the control group.

With the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s support, we were able to generate some of the first data on a cessation intervention for indoor tanning addiction in young women, providing a promising intervention model that we and other researchers can build from in future work.

Aside from never using sun lamps or tanning beds, what other preventive methods can people do to reduce their risk of skin cancer?

The vast majority of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers are preventable by reducing ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure from the sun and from artificial sources. In addition to avoiding indoor tanning, it is critical to protect your skin from the sun. You can reduce sun exposure by wearing protective clothing (including a wide brimmed hat), using broad spectrum sunscreen and seeking shade. Regularly examine your skin and seek care from a doctor if you notice unusual moles or other changes to detect any potential problems early and seek appropriate care.

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. To learn more about signs and symptoms of the disease, as well as tips on how to reduce your risk, visit 

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