PROVO — A newly published Brigham Young University study found that students there are largely ignoring winter’s skin cancer risks by hardly ever wearing sunscreen and increasing their tanning bed use when the weather turns cold.

Titled “Sunscreen and Tanning Bed Use in High-Risk College-Age Students,” the study published in the November-December edition of the Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association surveyed 673 BYU students on campus during different seasons in 2017.

Just 9.5% overall reported using sunscreen, a number that dropped to 7.2% in the winter. More students — 12.6% overall and 15.8% in the winter — said they used tanning beds, even though the beds are known to increase the amount of UV exposure and contribute to skin cancer and melanoma development.

More women than men said they used sunscreen, the study showed. Tanning beds were used fairly consistently by female students year-round, while their male counterparts were more likely to to seek an artificial tan in the winter.

“Not enough college-age individuals are wearing sunblock consistently,” said Emily M. Graham, lead author and current M.D. candidate at the University of Utah. “That’s especially concerning in Utah, which has the highest incidence of melanoma in the country.”

It was Graham who came up with the idea for the study after realizing as an undergraduate nursing student at BYU how little concern her peers had for protecting themselves from skin cancer, said Katreena Merrill, the study’s co-author and an associate professor at the BYU College of Nursing.

What they found on a campus already seen as high-risk because of altitude and winter weather was surprising, Merrill said.

“You would think in this day and age, that there would be a little more protection,” she said. “And a little less stupidity from when we were young.”

Her worst-ever sunburn came during a high-school ski trip more than 40 years ago, she said.

“I mean, it was bad on my face. I think that we forget that when you’re skiing or outdoor recreating in the sun, or the clouds for that matter, in the winter, that reflection off the snow, that can be brutal,” said Merrill, who learned a painful lesson about skipping sunscreen in the winter.

More research needs to be done on why students don’t use sunscreen, she said, as well as on why they use tanning beds. Utah is one of more than 20 states that regulate tanning beds, banning customers under 18 who don’t have a doctor’s order or isn’t accompanied by a parent.

When it comes to wearing sunscreen, Merrill said, students may not think about needing it, or if they do, believe it’s unpleasant to use or too costly.

“The sunscreens are so much better than they used to be,” she said. “There’s a lot out there. They’re not like all greasy and icky. There’s some really great products out there and yet people still don’t take advantage of them. That’s one thing we didn’t ask is why.”

Tanning beds are a different story, Merrill said, because students are seeking out potential skin damage.

“That’s purely on purpose. You know, ‘I want to look a certain way,’ that desire to be the look, that healthy look, or that glowing look or that tan look. Which is unfortunate, because you pay the price later,” she said, suggesting those motivations deserve a further look.

The study was done before the global coronavirus pandemic, which may temper some of the findings as people spend more time indoors and less time at places like tanning salons. Still, Merrill said, people are being encouraged to get outside where it’s easier to social distance.

The same sense of youthful invincibility that keeps some students from wearing masks and taking other precautions to help stop the spread of COVID-19 may be why they don’t bother using sunscreen, she said, since “to protect your skin now for something that’s going to happen later is just difficult to get your head around.”

Her advice for students is to apply sunscreen daily, no matter what, as well as using hats and clothing as protection from the sun.

“You get up in the morning, you brush your teeth, you put on just a quick lotion on your face,” Merrill said. “It’s just a habit that we need to get into.”