If a picture is worth a thousand words, a special type of photography may be more powerful than any lecture or educational campaign in convincing you of the dangers of sun bathing.
In a recent study published in March 2005 in the Archives of Dermatology, researchers studied the impact of showing UV-filtered photographs to 146 college-aged Californians. One month after seeing the hidden damage that sun exposure had caused, the use of sunscreens by the test subjects increased significantly.
When a UV filter is placed on an ordinary camera, photos will show the amount of damage that the sun has already caused to your skin. The filtered UV light is absorbed by the areas of the skin where there is more melanin, a pigment that is produced to prevent skin damage. The difference between a normal and UV photograph can be quite striking. Freckles, wrinkles and lines caused suddenly appear, making a beautiful, young girl with clear skin look old and speckled.
Samples of UV-filtered photos of two young women.
The idea behind this study was to see if the appearance shown by UV photography can scare tanners into the shade. To date, health-related warnings have done little to lower the rate of skin cancer.
"If you take these photographs, they can see that it's not that they will have damage to their skin at some point in the future," said Heike Mahler, professor of psychology at California State University, San Marcos and lead author of the study, "they have the damage now."
In this study, researchers asked college students the amount of time they spent intentionally tanning or were incidentally exposed to sun and how much they knew about skin protection; all participants were informed about the dangers of sun exposure. Then, half of the participants were shown UV-filtered and regular photos taken of their face.
"We'd get an audible gasp when people first looked at their pictures," said Dr. Mahler. "Some people would say, 'Oh no, what does this mean? How bad is this?'"
A month later, the students were called and asked about their adherence to any skin protection plans. Participants did not expect the phone call, so they had no reason to think that their future skin protection, or lack of it, would be monitored. Those who had seen their UV photos were more likely to regularly use sun block or another forms of UV protection than those who did not see their UV photograph. Additionally, 61 percent of those involved told at least one friend or family member what they had learned about UV damage and sun protection; those who had UV photos taken told many more.
Similar studies have shown that UV photography has a similar impact in deterring people from using tanning beds and convincing older beach-goers to protect their skin. Many dermatologists have UV cameras in their office and some skin care companies also offer UV photos, but simply seeing the immediate damage that sun tanning causes in other people, "would provide individuals with yet another reason to take care of their skin," said Dr. Mahler.
Skin cancer is increasing at a rate of 3 percent every year. "I would hope that if awareness of the health risks hasn't motivated individuals to protect their skin up to this point in time, that this added threat to appearance would," she added.