Canadian Women Receiving Mixed Signals Regarding Skin Cancer through Magazines

tanned ladyResearch from Canada’s University of Waterloo suggests that women are receiving mixed signals about tanning and how it relates to skin cancer.

For Canadians, skin cancer is the most common cancer type in the country. About 6,500 new cases of melanoma and 76,100 cases of non-melanoma are diagnosed per year, and healthcare costs related to the disease are fast creeping up on the $1 billion mark, with the estimated costs by 2031 at $922 million annually.

The study, which was commissioned by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, had stressed that magazines tend to focus on beauty in tanned women, and do not give female readers enough details on the risk factors and variables that may cause skin cancer, or early detection strategies for the disease. Researchers studied skin cancer and tanning coverage in six leading women’s magazines – Canadian Living, Chatelaine, ELLE Canada, Fashion, Flare, and Homemakers – with the issues in the study from 2000 to 2012. Images on the magazines were also analyzed for information regarding risk factors, early detection, and preventative measures.

“Messages surrounding skin cancer in Canadian women’s magazines are conflicting and there are important gaps,” read a statement from study lead Jennifer McWhirter of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at Waterloo. “This is problematic because the mass media is an important source of health information for people.”

McWhirter’s group discovered that 70 percent of the articles in the magazines promoted the use of sunscreen, but a much smaller percentage had suggested other tools women, or people in general, could use to prevent skin cancer, such as avoiding exposure to the sun, avoiding indoor tanning, looking for shade, or wearing protective clothing. In fact, there were very few articles that had specifically warned readers about the risks of indoor tanning.

More than half of the images on the magazines had promoted beauty through a tanned appearance. This proved to be quite disturbing for McWhirter and her colleagues. “The blonde, bronzed young woman in a bikini is pretty intense competition for the accompanying public health message to protect against UV exposure,” she said. “My co-author and I were surprised and concerned that there was so little information in the Canadian magazines on the dangers of tanning beds.”

Ultraviolet ray exposure through tanning beds and other similar devices is classified as a skin cancer risk, according to the World Health Organization’s guidelines. However, studies show that over a quarter of young women in Canada make use of indoor tanning beds; tanning salons, according to recent data, are more common in Canada than popular restaurants such as McDonald’s and Tim Hortons.

The study also stated that there was virtually no information in the magazine about how people can detect skin cancer in its earliest stages. According to School of Public Health and Health Systems professor Laurie Hoffman-Goetz, this is important as early detection increases the chances of the disease being curable. “But people need to know what to look for and when to seek medical attention,” she added.

The study was published this week in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.