I know I should stop tanning, but it really puts me in a good mood. I've read that it can be like addiction. Is there any truth to this?
When you plan a trip to the tanning salon, do you feel guilty? Do you try to hide how often you go tanning from your friends and family? These questions may sound odd and more appropriate when aimed at those with substance abuse problems, but studies show that tanning can be addictive and learning to stop may require more than just putting up with pale skin.
It may seem far-fetched for doctors to claim ultraviolet (UV) light as an addictive substance, but it's not so unbelievable. For years, dermatologists (and tanning fanatics everywhere) have suspected that the sun's rays brighten people's moods as it darkens the color of their skin. Over the past year, two separate studies have finally been able to point to a clear link. Steven Feldman, a dermatologist at Wake Forest University, and Robin Hornung, a dermatologist at the University of Washington, have both conducted studies focusing on the relationship between tanning and addiction.
Feldman asked both frequent and non-frequent tanners to take a drug called naltrexone, which is often used to help treat alcoholics because it blocks the opioid receptors in the body. Endorphins and dependent drugs such as morphine and codeine attach to opioid receptors, so when the receptors aren't there, the addict isn't getting what he or she "needs". Among those who tanned frequently, taking naltrexone created symptoms of withdrawal, such as nausea and dizziness, while the infrequent tanners did not show any adverse reactions to the drug. Feldman suggests that the frequent tanners are chemically dependent on UV light and therefore suffer when the drug blocks their UV fix.
Hornung focused on college students in the Seattle area. Using a standardized test that determines the existence of a substance-related disorder (SRD), she asked these students to fill out questionnaires regarding their attitudes toward tanning compared to the attitudes of their friends and families. The result? 18 percent of students who said they tan on purpose were found to exhibit addictive behaviors toward tanning.
While that number may not seem very high, it's similar to addiction percentages in studies regarding alcohol and nicotine addictions. Horning's study also showed that nearly half of all students who tan do so because they say it helps them to relax. Again, this finding is comparable to the motivation behind the pursuit of other addictions.
Some dermatologists see an evolutionary connection with tanning's appeal. Before the widespread availability of vitamin D-fortified dairy products, it's possible that the body's release of endorphins in reaction to UV light spurred people toward sunlight in order to increase their production of vitamin D.
While these studies do not prove conclusively that tanning should be treated in the same way as substance abuse problems, they do demonstrate that preventing people from tanning is not as easy as listing the negative effects of UV light. Many people understand that UV rays damage the body but still find themselves looking for the perfect suntan. Tanning indoors may have a stronger effect as well, as students who choose to tan in salons were twice as likely to show symptoms of a UV addiction disorder as those who tan outdoors.
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Published On: August 21, 2007