Natalie Southwick
Updated Aug 25, 2015 @ 1:09 pm

Low self-esteem is tied to a whole host of other health-related issues, from anxiety and stress to greater risk of developing an eating disorder. Now new evidence suggests that it might be linked to higher rates of skin cancer as well.

A recent study published in the journal Health Psychology found a correlation between reduced self-confidence and increased rates of skin cancer among both men and women. The researchers identified 1,535 people from a national health study who reported a history of sunburns and below-average use of sunscreen — both risk factors for skin cancer.

The subjects were asked about how much time they spent outside during the summer, when increased hours of daylight and stronger direct sunlight can create more opportunities for exposure and sunburns. They were also asked to describe their own perception of their physical attractiveness, choosing between “very attractive,” “moderately,” “slightly” or “not at all.”

The respondents who had the lowest opinion of their own looks, rating themselves slightly or not at all attractive, also reported the most time spent outside in sunlight, leading researchers to conclude that this group of people might make more of an effort to tan because they think it will make them appear more attractive.

Of course, the study’s results are far from conclusive. One issue is that the researchers didn’t give respondents the option to categorize the hours they spent outside, meaning that someone who did yard work for two hours or ran a half-marathon were reporting the same amount of time in the sun as someone who spent two hours tanning on the beach, even though the first person wasn’t outside only to tan.

Still, the study serves as a cautionary reminder of just how much of an effect — either positive or negative — confidence and self-esteem can have on our lifestyle, individual choices and health. The researchers pointed out that past studies have already found strong correlations between negative perceptions of appearance and increased tendency toward risky behaviors, including smoking, having unprotected sex and not exercising.

Feeling unhappy or self-conscious about physical appearance could lead people to have a “low regard for keeping their bodies safe and healthy,” they suggested.

While we’ve come a long way from the days when our moms and grandmothers would head to the beach with aluminum reflectors or cans of Crisco to help them soak up some extra rays, skin cancer — and related issues like sun damage — are still major health concerns, especially for teens, who can do lasting damage to their skin that will have serious consequences in the future.

Among high school students who spent an average of more than an hour outside on sunny days in 2011, 14.4 percent of girls and just 7.3 percent of boys said they regularly used sunscreen that was SPF-15 or higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, more than 13 percent of high schoolers said they had used an indoor tanning device at least once in the previous year. No surprise, the rates for fake tanning were much higher for girls, with more than one in five girls (21 percent) saying they used a tanning device, compared with just 6 percent of boys.

Spray-tanning once before prom certainly won’t kill you, but if you’re really worried about your Vitamin D intake, you’re better off reaching for some salmon or a glass of orange juice. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind that building positive self-esteem will do far more for your confidence in the long run than a temporary summery glow.

(Photo: Shutterstock)