Yoo, who outlined his findings in a recent issue of the journal Household and Personal Care Today, found that women seem to view sunless tanning as a cosmetic "complement" to UV exposure, rather than a wholesale substitute.
Concerns that fake tanners could result in a streaked or unnatural-looking tan were generally found to trump any health motivations that might drive women to seek out sunless alternatives. Bronzers, often considered a cosmetic rather than a self-tanning product, were regarded more favorably than other types of tanners.
"The problem," said Yoo, "is that the benefits of getting the tan are immediate. But the negative effect of UV exposure is something you see at a much later point in life."
Emphasizing quality might help boost acceptance of sunless tanning products among young women, Yoo added. "One, we need to assure them that they're safe, that they won't get an allergic reaction or skin irritation. And two, we need to increase confidence that they are a convenient alternative to getting the color women want," Yoo said.
Dr. Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said sunless tanning products should be only one part of a two-pronged public health message.
"Yes, for a lot of young people who really want to look tan it's a lot safer to use one of these products than to go out and tan," she said. And some products provide a pretty realistic-looking tan, she said. "I've had patients coming into the office who I think are really tan, and it turns out to be fake," she said.
"But a better situation," Stein added, "is for there to be a cultural shift away from the desire to be tan to begin with."
The notion that tanned skin is attractive dates only to the 1920s. That perception could change, she suggested. "A good thing is that now there are a lot of actresses or models who are looking lighter and healthier and are out there without a tan," she said. "So increasingly we have more and more role models for young women who have great-looking natural skin. And that's very helpful."