Indoor Tanning: Turning First-Time Clients Into Repeat Customers

As much as indoor tanning increases the risk of dermatologic malignancies, current research reveals that companies still make it their business to create onetime customers into regular patrons.


Nearly 10 million people use indoor tanning (IT) even though it increases the risk of skin cancer. Young white women are particularly at risk—almost 1 in 3 reports using indoor tanning in the past year, and nearly 1 in 5 reports regular use (that is, > 10 times in the past year), according to researchers from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Research has already shown that most people use IT to enhance their appearance. But a tan is not only seen as attractive: It “plays an important part of youth culture,” the researchers note, especially when it comes to special events, like high school proms. Still, some IT users might remain “special event” users, not regular clients. What makes the difference? To find out, the researchers conducted 6 interviews with a salon employee who also used tanning beds. Their purpose was not to produce “generalizable knowledge of the experiences of many users” but to provide insights into the behavior and to propose working hypotheses for future examination.

The researchers found that the incentive to use IT mostly comes down to—as many health-related decisions do—how it is advertised. The first encounter is likely to be the most important one. That is when the sell begins, designed to “guide” the patron into coming back, and back again. For instance, the salon employee may be trained to establish rapport, to personalize the interaction, and to ask about “tan goals,” setting the stage for a process, rather than a 1-time purchase. The employee describes the steps of creating a “base tan,” maintaining the tan, deepening the tan. Framing tanning as a process sends the message that frequent visits are needed. The researchers cite self-regulation theories that posit for a habit to take hold, the individual must develop a mental model or plans for how to use the habitual behavior to achieve desired goals.

The US Federal Trade Commission and other agencies have enacted restrictions on IT industry advertisements, the researchers say. But the policy efforts have not addressed greater regulation at the point-of-purchase, other than requiring the provision of standardized risk warnings. The interview findings suggest ways to help reduce IT use. Pricing controls, for instance: If patrons had to buy single sessions—instead of in bulk—they might feel less pressured to “get their money’s worth.” Restrictions on advertisement might require salon employees also to provide information on unnecessary exposure. The researchers contrast the salon employee to a convenience store clerk who “simply serves as a cashier for purchasing cigarettes or unhealthy food options.”

The researchers suggest that their findings be followed up in larger, more representational samples.

Next Article: