Use of fake tanning lotions in the South Australian population

Kerri R Beckmann, Barbara A Kirke, Kieran A McCaul and David M Roder
Med J Aust 2001; 174 (2): 75-78.
Published online: 15 January 2001


Use of fake tanning lotions in the South Australian population

Kerri R Beckmann, Barbara A Kirke, Kieran A McCaul and David M Roder

MJA 2001; 174: 75-78

Abstract - Methods - Results - Discussion - Conclusions - References - Authors' Details

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Objective: To explore the relationship between the use of fake tanning lotions and repeated sunburn among South Australian adults, with a view to informing the Anti-Cancer Foundation of South Australia's (ACFSA) policy on fake tanning products.
Study design: Population survey.
Participants: 2005 South Australians aged 18 years or older, selected randomly from the electronic White Pages.
Main outcome measures: Self-reported use of fake tanning lotions in the past 12 months; frequency of sunburn over summer; and various sun-protective behaviours.
Results: 2005 of the 2536 eligible participants (79%) were surveyed by telephone. Fake tan use was most prevalent among women (15.9%), people aged 18-24 years (15.4%), and people with household incomes above $40 000 per year (11.9%). Fake tan users were more likely than non-users to use sunscreens (81.3% v 56.5%; P < 0.001), but less likely to take other precautions such as wearing hats (40.9% v 51.0%; P = 0.04) and protective clothing (22.3% v 34.1%; P = 0.005). They were also more likely to report having been burnt more than once over summer (26.2% v 16.5%; P = 0.025). Multivariate analysis indicates a statistically significant association between fake tan use and repeated sunburn (odds ratio, 2.07; 95% confidence interval, 1.17-3.69), which was independent of age, sex, skin type and sun-protection practices.
Conclusion: Users of fake tanning products may be at greater risk of repeated sunburn. The ACFSA sees no justification at this stage for altering its present policy position of not actively promoting the use of fake tanning lotions as a means of reducing sunburn.

Anticancer organisations in Australia have been conducting programs aimed at reducing Australia's high rate of skin cancer for over two decades.1 The main objective of these programs is to encourage people to reduce their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, the major contributing factor to the development of skin cancer.2

In Australia public awareness about the dangers of overexposure to the sun is generally high. In spite of this, a suntan is still desired by some sectors of the community -- in particular, young, fashion-conscious people.3,4 Skin cancer prevention programs have attempted to change attitudes that value tanned skin as attractive and healthy with such messages as "there is no such thing as a safe tan" and "a tan is a sign of skin damage".

Last year, Chapman challenged anticancer organisations to consider the role that fake tanning lotions might play in reducing sun exposure, suggesting that they should be assessed as a potential harm-reduction strategy.5

The Anti-Cancer Foundation of South Australia (ACFSA) has, for a number of years, provided information on fake tanning lotions. While not actively encouraging their use, the information suggests that, for those desiring a tan, using fake tanning lotions is preferable to exposure to artificial or solar ultraviolet radiation.

In October 1999, the ACFSA included a question on the use of fake tanning lotions in a Health Monitor Survey along with questions on skin type, experience of sunburn and frequency of wearing hats, cover-up clothing, applying sunscreen and seeking shade.

This article reports the findings of that survey and discusses them in relation to the position taken by the ACFSA regarding fake tanning lotions.


Questions relating to sun exposure and ultraviolet radiation protective behaviours, including one relating to the use of fake tanning lotions, were asked of a random sample of South Australians, by computer-assisted telephone interviewing. These questions (Box 1) were part of a larger health-related survey organised and conducted by the Department of Human Services, South Australia, in October 1999. Except for the question relating to fake tan use, these questions have been used routinely in monitoring sun-protection behaviours in South Australia and were originally validated as written questions in a national Secondary School Children's Survey conducted triennially since 1990.6 The question on fake tan use is a slightly modified version of a question asked in Victorian surveys in 1993 and 1995.7,8

Ethical approval for the survey that incorporated the questions used in this study was obtained through the Department of Human Services, with legal authorisation under section 64d of the South Australian Health Commission Act (1976).

A sample of 3400 residences from rural and metropolitan areas within South Australia was drawn from the electronic White Pages. One adult from each household (the person whose birthday was the most recent) was invited to participate. Two thousand and five interviews were conducted from the 2536 households that could be contacted after six callback attempts, giving a participation rate of 79.1%.

All data were weighted by age, sex and region, and on the probability of selection within the household. The population profile for weighting was obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' estimated population for South Australia, 1997. Geographical region was defined as either metropolitan or country region. Both descriptive analysis of the survey data and logistic regression modelling were undertaken using STATA version 6,9 as this software allows calculation of robust estimates of standard error using methods devised by Huber10 and White.11 Consequently, variance estimates are adjusted for the data weighting.

The relationship between fake tan use and reported sunburn over summer was examined using logistic regression modelling, allowing adjustment for age, sex, skin type and sun-protective behaviours. We first constructed a model containing known risk factors for sunburn and then added fake tan use to this model to establish if this improved the fit of the model. "Having been burnt two or more times during the previous summer" was the dependent (outcome) variable. For each of the sun protective behaviour questions, respondents were coded as regular users if they indicated that they "usually, almost always, or always" took such precautions when out in the sun for an hour or more, and were coded as irregular users if they indicated that they "never, rarely or sometimes" took these measures.


Based on results from this survey, the estimated prevalence of fake tanning lotion use during the past 12 months among South Australians aged 18 years or more was 8.7% (95% confidence interval [CI], 7.3%-10.5%). The prevalence of fake tan use among various subgroups of the population is shown in Box 2. The use of fake tanning lotions is most common among younger people, particularly women, with the peak prevalence being 28% among young women aged 18-24 years. Fake tan use is also more common among those who report that their skin burns before tanning, compared with those whose skin just tans or just burns. Fake tan use also appears to be related to household income, with those with relatively high household incomes (above $40 000 per year) more likely to use fake tanning lotions.

Individuals who had used fake tanning lotions in the past year were more likely to report regularly using sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15+ or higher when in the sun than non-users (81% v 57%; P < 0.001). However, they were less likely to report regularly wearing hats (41% v 51%; P = 0.04) or protective clothing (22% v 34%; P = 0.005). They reported seeking shade at levels similar to those who had not used fake tanning lotions (80% v 76%, P = 0.4). Those who had used fake tanning lotions were also more likely to report having been burnt two or more times during the previous summer (26% v 17%; P = 0.025) (Box 3).

Factors such as age, skin type, sex and regular sun-protective behaviours are likely to confound the association between fake tan use and risk of burning. Results of logistic regression modelling, which takes into account the effects of these potential confounders, indicate an increased risk among fake tan users of having been sunburnt more than once (odds ratio [OR], 2.07; 95% CI, 1.17-3.69), as shown in Box 4.

As the use of fake tanning lotions was much more prevalent among women than men, we also undertook regression analyses for women and men separately. No association between fake tan use and sunburn was found among men (OR, 0.90; 95% CI, 0.14-5.97). This was most probably owing to the fact that only 12 men reported using fake tanning lotions. There was, however, a strong association between using fake tanning lotions and repeated sunburn among women (OR, 2.47; 95% CI, 1.38-4.42).


While the overall prevalence of fake tan use among adult South Australians is low (8.7%; 95% CI, 7.3%-10.5%), the use of fake tanning lotions is fairly common in younger women, with more than one in four women aged 18-24 years reporting having used fake tanning lotions in the past year. These findings are consistent with the reported prevalence of use in Victoria.7,8

Respondents who reported using fake tanning lotions were more likely to report regularly using SPF 15+ or higher sunscreen when out in the sun during summer, but were less likely to report wearing hats or protective clothing. Fake tan users were more likely to report being sunburnt two or more times over the past summer. When other known risk factors were taken into account, fake tan users had twice the risk of repeated sunburn over summer compared with non-users.

The only previously reported findings in relation to the association between fake tan use and sunburn are from two surveys conducted in Victoria, one in 19937 and one in 1995.8 The first of these surveys found a higher prevalence of sunburn among fake tan users (66% v 46%), while the latter survey found no difference (39% v 40%). The inconsistency of these two reports may have been owing to the relatively small sample size of each survey (n < 700).

Owing to the limited nature of the questions in this survey, we were unable to determine whether fake tanning lotions were used just at the start of the season to give a tanned look before a sun-induced tan could be achieved, or throughout the summer as a substitute for sunbathing. Given the timing of the survey (ie, spring), there may be some inaccuracy in people's recall of sunburn in the previous summer. However, it seems unlikely to us that one group would have been more or less likely to under-report having been sunburnt, so any recall effect would have been equivalent in both groups.

Another limitation in relation to the timing and cross-sectional nature of the survey is the inability to establish a temporal relationship. In some cases, sunburn may have preceded the use of fake tanning lotions. We can not conclude that fake tan use contributes directly to an increased risk of sunburn. We can only suggest that the behaviours of fake tan use and sun exposure may be linked.

A further limitation of this study is that we did not ask about the reason for or frequency of use. We do not know whether there are differences in the risk of sunburn among those who use fake tanning lotions only on special occasions (eg, theatrical performances) compared with those who use such products regularly to maintain a tanned appearance.

This lack of detail does not negate the finding that, as a whole, those who use fake tanning lotions are at greater risk of sunburn. Regardless of when and why people use fake tanning lotions, the results of this survey do not offer any evidence that use of fake tanning lotions, as currently practised, protects against sunburn. However, since this is an observational study, we can not rule out the possibility that the use of fake tanning lotions may actually offer some protection. It is conceivable that, had users not been applying fake tanning lotions, sunburn levels could have been even higher in this group. Further clarification of this issue would require a longitudinal (experimental) study design.

Our results suggest that, rather than reducing their sun exposure, fake tan users are more likely to be exposing their skin to damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation than non-users. The evidence also suggests that, in general, fake tan users take fewer precautions to protect their skin from the sun. While fake tan users are more likely to report using sunscreens, they appear to rely on sunscreens alone for sun protection rather than using multiple strategies, as recommended by the Anti-Cancer Foundation. Some fake tan users may believe that the tanned effect provided by fake tanning lotions offers protection against the sun. Further confusion may arise in cases where their chosen brand of tanning lotion contains sunscreen.

An inspection of fake tanning lotions currently available in South Australia showed that most brands do not include a sunscreen, and many state on the label that the fake tan does not provide protection against solar ultraviolet radiation. Some brands also include the advice to use a regular SPF 30+ sunscreen when going into the sun.

However, a few brands of fake tanning lotions do contain sunscreen, varying in their sun protection factor from 4 to 15. One commonly available product with an SPF 4 rating states on its label, "UV Protection: Protects you in the sun, providing 4 times your natural sunburn protection". While technically correct, the protection would apply only to the period immediately after application and not for the time that the tan remains visible on the skin. Such claims are obviously very misleading.

Anticancer organisations advise that sunscreens need to be reapplied regularly, ideally two-hourly, to maintain adequate protection. If such advice was followed when using a fake tanning lotion containing a sunscreen, the colour of the tan would deepen with each application. Also, it may take up to four hours for the tan colour to fully develop. Most products recommend removal of dry or flaky skin before applying the fake tanning lotion. The need to do this and the effect of repeated applications on tan colour are likely to preclude regular reapplication of fake tanning lotions, thereby increasing the likelihood of users risking sunburn if they rely on the protection offered by one application. In our view, including a sunscreen in a fake tanning lotion offers no obvious benefit. On the contrary, it has the potential to generate a false sense of protection which may lead to sunburn in fake tan users.


In response to the discussion posed by Chapman5 in relation to the use of fake tanning lotions as a "harm minimisation" approach, the ACFSA was prompted to review its policy in relation to the promotion and sale of fake tanning lotions.

The results of this study do not point to a reduced risk of harmful sun exposure among fake tan users. Rather, they suggest an elevated risk of sunburn. In the light of these findings, the ACFSA sees no justification for altering its current position on the use of fake tanning lotions. The use of fake tanners is not actively promoted by the ACFSA. However, where there is a strong desire for a tan, people are advised that the use of fake tanning lotions is a better alternative than sunbathing or using a solarium. They are also advised that a fake tan does not provide protection against the sun and are warned about the limited protection offered by products that contain a sunscreen.

More in-depth investigation of why and when fake tanning lotions are used, and the extent to which fake tan users believe they are protected from the harmful effects of the sun while using such products, is needed to inform education strategies and guide any policy change by organisations such as the ACFSA. The potential of the labelling of fake tan products containing sunscreens to be misleading needs to be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities.


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(Received 21 Mar, accepted 31 Jul, 2000)

Authors' Details

Anti-Cancer Foundation of South Australia, Adelaide, SA.
Kerri R Beckmann, BSc(Hons), MPH, Program Evaluation Officer;
Barbara A Kirke, DipN, MPHC, Skin Cancer Prevention Project Officer.

Collaborative Research Centre for Asthma, University Department of Medicine, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Perth, WA.
Kieran A McCaul, BSc, MPH, Biostatistician.

Epidemiology Branch, South Australian Department of Human Services, Adelaide, SA.
David M Roder, AM, MPH, DDSc, Director.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Correspondence: Ms K R Beckmann, Anti-Cancer Foundation of South Australia, PO Box 929, Unley, SA 5061.

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Box 1
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Box 2
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Box 3
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4: Factors associated with being burnt more than once over summer
  All respondents Women only

  Adjusted Adjusted
  odds ratio 95% CI P odds ratio 95% CI P

Fake tan use







Age (group years)




Skin type
  Just tan
  Burn then tan
  Just burn




Sunscreen use




Hat wearing





Protective clothing





Shade seeking





*Logistic regression modelling using forced entry of all variables. Separate models for all respondents and women only.
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Received 17 January 2022, accepted 17 January 2022

  • Kerri R Beckmann
  • Barbara A Kirke
  • Kieran A McCaul
  • David M Roder



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