Tanning Advertising on TikTok is #Dangerous — Sign This Petition To Stop It
Update: Australian journalist Melissa Mason has started a petition to ban the advertisement of tanning products in Australia, specifically “products that have no SPF but are designed to be worn in the sun to encourage a tan.”
Mason told POPSUGAR Australia, “I was originally following the controversy around influencers promoting sunbaking again, I thought we’d progressed away from it, towards sun safety.” She says that while on social media “doom scroll,” she noticed brands seemed to be promoting tanning accelerator products flagged in the coverage below, without check. “Scroll TikTok and you’ll find tan accelerators being advertised in paid partnerships with influencers, brands posting method videos showing viewers how to get tan lines from sun baking, it made me so angry.”
The petition has been taken up by journalists and influencers who find the blind eye the TGA and advertising bodies seem to be turning on the promotion of unsafe sun practices, while discussion of sun protection has been heavily monitored since last year’s TGA ruling.
While the powers behind TikTok have expressed a desire to monitor tanning content on the platform, they themselves said this would be no small feat on the fast-moving platform. Banning the advertisement of tanning products, rather than the content itself, would remove some incentives for creators to promote these products and practices.
Fashion brands have also been called out for glamorising tanning and tan lines in their campaign shoots — with one Australian label called out in a since-deleted Instagram post. Mason says that next she’ll be taking signatures up the chain. “I felt helpless and enraged, so I started the petition because it’s something I could do there and then. Next, I’ll be taking the signatures to my local member and working on getting it in front of the right eyes of the Federal Government.”
What Has TikTok Been Doing to Monitor Tanning Content So Far?
TikTok is cracking down on content that encourages tanning and will be implementing content warnings around the risks of skincare, following concern from medical bodies about the promotion of dangerous tanning behaviour on the platform.
In 2022, hashtags like #sunburntchallenge — which features users comparing their worst sunburns — have gone viral, as well as instructions on how to achieve “the perfect tan.” Indeed, a quick search of “TikTok tanning” brings up tanning lotions, tanning gels, tanning salons and even tanning nasal sprays, showing the far-reaching desire that young Aussies still have for “the perfect tan”
Now, TikTok has announced that it will be banning videos that encourage tanning. Furthermore, it will add sun safety warnings and links to the Melanoma Institute on any tanning and summer-related content.
TikTok’s general manager, Lee Hunter, said that the social media app would be targeting any content that promotes “unsafe activities related to the dangers of tanning”, but flagged that it would take some time for the app to be able to distinguish, say, a trip to the beach from promotion of tanning beds.
The first step, though, is the banning of the hashtag #sunburntchallenge. TikTok are also collaborating on a campaign with the Melanoma Institute of Australia that will encourage users to share videos about sun safety. While this is well and good, how did we get here?
Why Do We Still Not Understand That There’s Nothing Safe About a Tan?
After decades of public health messaging around the risks of skin cancer, why are young people still obsessed with tanning?
While the impacts of sun exposure cost the healthcare system over a billion dollars each year, and millions of dollars have been sunk into sun safety campaigns over the last few decades, it seems Aussies still aren’t getting it.
According to pharmaceutical scientist and skincare educator Hannah English, this is partly because sunlight feels good.
“UVB exposure on the skin indirectly produces endorphins,” she explains, “and we’re pretty good at lying to ourselves about the health risks of anything that releases warm, fuzzy, happy chemicals.”
Then, there are the powerful cultural associations of tanned skin with beauty. English says that based on her observations, many Australians still subscribe to what she describes as a “thin, tanned white woman” being the aspirational beauty ideal. This is the imagery many young Australians grew up with, and it’s something that’s become intrinsically linked in our national imagination to the carefree, beachy lifestyle we pride ourselves on.
Courtney Mangan, a young Australian who is a three-time melanoma survivor, also notes that while awareness of sunscreen has skyrocketed, many young Australians post about sun safety while lounging at the beach. She says that while women have gotten better at incorporating sunscreen into their routines, this has had more to do with the rebranding of sunscreen as an anti-ageing product, rather than a method for avoiding potentially fatal conditions like melanoma.
Hannah English seconds this, and says advertising around sunscreen can further muddy the waters. She says that while tanning oils are being pushed to young people, “we also have sunscreen campaigns producing and relying on beachy imagery”. This visual style means that it’s natural for Australians to associate sun protection with the beach, and the beach only.
“It’s no wonder [in this context] that we as a nation continue to have a minimal grasp of the realities of both sun protection and sun damage,” says English.
Mangan welcomes this new initiative by TikTok, noting that all public platforms, people, and media organisations should be showing an active interest in this critical public health issue.
“Anyone with a platform has a responsibility to manage the promotion of any content that has a clear and direct connection with cancer and, ultimately, potential death,” she says. “It might sound dramatic, but that’s what the promotion of any kind of sun tanning is.”
Mangan also says that this responsibility is particularly important on platforms like TikTok, which has a predominantly young user base. According to start.io, 58.9 percent of TikTok users in Australia are aged between 18 and 24, with another 28.3 percent between 25 and 34 years of age.
Has the Influencer Advertising Code Impacted Sun-Safety Promotion Online?
For Mangan, public discussion around sun safety has been historically limited, focusing on sunbathing, sunburn, and the use of solariums. There is little focus on the risk of high UV exposure.
“You don’t have to actively be in the sun to be at risk of melanoma,” she says. “Most people aren’t talking about the sun exposure we receive when we’re driving to work, or sitting near a window, all of this puts us at risk, and one of your best defenses is sunscreen.”
It’s not just sunburn challenges going viral on TikTok, though — suntan lotions and oils frequently pop off on the platform as well. Videos of users applying viral tanning oils, accompanied by captions that describe the products as “elite” receive tens of thousands of views. Meanwhile, heavy restrictions have been placed on influencer promotion of sunscreen.
This brings us to this year’s ruling by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, which placed restrictions and heavy penalties on the way influencers (and media) discuss and promote sunscreen.
Mangan acknowledges the importance of the Therapeutic Good Administration in regulating sun protection, and ensuring that Australian sunscreens follow “the very best standards in the world”. However, she is highly critical of the “Influencer Advertising Code” — both the ruling earlier this year and its implementation.
Mangan says that while the marketing of sunscreen online needed immediate review, the implementation was, as she describes it, “reckless and poorly thought out.” She tells POPSUGAR Australia the ruling and its heavy penalties — which include a $100,000 fine — have resulted in an environment where influencers and media are hesitant to discuss SPF and sun protection online.
Mangan summarises: “Even if one influencer is confused by the regulations, and therefore too scared to say the word SPF on their platform, that does us all a huge disservice.”