By Carolyn Crist

(Reuters Health) – When the “Don’t Fry Day” campaign hit Twitter on the Friday before Memorial Day, tweets from celebrities, news organizations and health groups made more than 12 million impressions on users.

As the U.S. July 4 Independence Day holiday nears, public health officials hope sun protection, sunburn and sun safety stays at the top of people’s minds while they celebrate the nation’s favorite summer holidays.

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., yet it is highly preventable,” said lead study author Jenn Nguyen of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

Don’t Fry Day is a national campaign sponsored by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention that promotes sun safety awareness on social media. Promoted every year on the weekend before the Memorial Day holiday in late May, the hashtag #DontFryDay encourages safe sun habits at the start of summer.

“We found that many of the accounts that tweeted the hashtag were health-oriented,” Nguyen told Reuters Health by email. “The majority of the tweets were from individuals who may be already aware of skin cancer and sun protection.”

Nguyen and colleagues tracked the conversation about #DontFryDay on Twitter during the five days around May 26, 2017, including tweets, retweets and potential impressions, which show how many users could have seen the tweet.

They found that 555 users without verified accounts made 39 retweets and garnered 747,000 impressions. However, the 18 individuals, mainly celebrities, with verified accounts made the biggest difference with 39 retweets and 8.7 million impressions, the study team reports in JAMA Dermatology. In particular, basketball player Dwayne Wade, a guard for the Miami Heat, accounted for most of the celebrity impact. His tweet addressed heat stroke prevention – not sun safety – but included the DontFryDay hashtag.

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“So many myths need to be busted when it comes to sun protection and sun exposure,” said Sherry Pagoto of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who wasn’t involved with the study. “Some people think tanning is safe, that it’s a healthy look and that sunscreen causes cancer,” she said in a phone interview. “Public health officials have their work cut out for them.”

In their Twitter analysis, Nguyen and colleagues found that 34 news organizations sent messages that made 2.5 million impressions, health and nongovernmental organizations made 1.5 million impressions, cancer and health centers reached 1.3 million and government entities reached about 1 million.

“This speaks to the power of celebrities and influencers in helping us get the message out there,” Pagoto said. “At the same time, it also speaks to the importance of scientists building their own social media audience as well.”

As they continue to analyze this year’s Don’t Fry Day campaign, Nguyen and others will investigate the messages that were associated with the hashtag and which ones seemed to be the most effective at engaging Twitter users.

Similarly, Pagoto and her colleagues are studying social media to learn how people talk about and learn about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They’re particularly focused on tanning beds, tanning safety and sun safety.

“It’s important to know who people are listening to and how they get their information,” she said. “It’s a great way to understand where they’re coming from and what they believe.”

SOURCE: JAMA Dermatology, online June 20, 2018.