A new study claims that gay and bisexual men in the United States are twice as likely as heterosexual men to get skin cancer.
Gay and bisexual men are three times more likely to engage in indoor tanning, according to the study presented Friday in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.
“The primary reason that men and women engage in indoor tanning is because of the cultural association of tanning with a healthy look and overall attractiveness,” says researcher Sarah Arron, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. “We need to dispel the myth of the healthy tan.”
The study suggests that anti-tanning messages which are often aimed at young women, need to be broader in their scope.
Tanning, whether in the sun or in a Tanning bed, can cause skin cancer, including melanoma, the most dangerous kind, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office.
For the study, Arron and colleagues first looked at data from government health surveys conducted in California between 2001 and 2009. Those surveys found elevated rates of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among gay and bisexual men but not gay and bisexual women. They also found gay and bisexual men in that state were much more likely to engage in indoor tanning than straight men were.
Gay and bisexual women in California were less likely than straight women to tan indoors.
The researchers then looked at national health survey data for 2013 and found the same thing: A history of skin cancer was twice as common in gay and bisexual men as in straight men, 6.6% vs. 3.3%. About 5% of gay and bisexual men said they had engaged in indoor tanning in the past year vs. 1.7% of straight men. Gay and bisexual women were, again, less likely than straight women to report indoor tanning.
Indoor tanning might not be solely responsible for the increased skin cancer risk in gay and bisexual men, Arron says.
Follow-up studies should look at sun exposure and use of sunscreen and other protective measures to fully sort out what prevention messages are needed, she says.
“While unfortunate and alarming, the findings are not all that surprising,” says Fred Sainz, vice president for communication at the Human Rights Campaign.
One reason is that tanning is indeed perceived as youthful and attractive by many gay men, he says. “It’s short-term gain vs. long-term pain,” he says.