Is Tanning Addictive?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Despite the well-known facts that tanning, both indoor and outdoor, can increase your risk for skin cancer and cause premature aging of the skin, some people continue to tan. Despite warnings from health organizations, health professionals, and possibly family and friends, they can’t stop. The reasoning behind continuing to tan despite the risks might have many causes. Here are two you hear others discussing:

  • Youth. Some say that young people tan because skin cancer is considered a disease that affects older people, and they just don’t consider the risks of something that may or may not happen years from now. Many teens and young adults see themselves as invincible.

  • Vanity. People who tan continuously might believe that a tanned complexion makes them look better and that their appearance is more important than the risk of skin cancer or wrinkles.

And while those reasons might be true sometimes, there might be something else at work here: Some research indicates that tanning might be addictive. Frequent tanners exhibit signs of both physical and psychological dependence, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. While the desire for a tanned appearance was the strongest motivation, people also reported that tanning improved their mood and helped them relax. UV light has been shown to increase endorphins, chemicals in the brain often referred to as “feel good chemicals” because of their ability to relieve pain and generate feelings of well-being. Research lead by David Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., found that daily exposure to UV light increased activity in the same pathways in the brain that are activated by drugs such as heroin or morphine, both highly addictive drugs.

Matthew Howard, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina, indicates that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of people who regularly go to the beach or visit tanning salons could meet the criteria for a tanning addiction. This is most prevalent in young, white, fair-skinned women, according to Dr. Howard. Those that are addicted to tanning might show signs and symptoms similar to withdrawal when they are unable to tan. Some might tan for as much as 40 hours a week, not just for a bronzed look but because they like the way spending time in the light makes them feel.

The American Psychiatric Association uses the CAGE questionnaire to help determine substance dependence. There are only four questions, but it is meant to help detect substance abuse. A study completed at the University of Texas in 2005 modified the questions for tanning:

  • Have you ever felt the need to cut down your tanning?

  • Have you ever felt annoyed by criticism of your tanning?

  • Have you ever had guilty feelings about tanning?

  • Have you ever wanted to tan first thing in the morning?

The researchers found that 26 percent of the participants would be classified as “tanning dependent” based on their answers. A second study from 2014 found lower rates, with 11 percent who met the criteria for tanning dependent. The authors of this study believe a discrepancy exists because the first study recruited participants that were beachgoers while the second study looked at college students generally. Even so, the authors of the second study point out that the results indicate similar results as students who showed dependence on alcohol or tobacco.

Dr. Fisher, whose research team found that UV light boosted endorphins in mice, is currently working on a product that would darken skin without UV exposure. This would help in cutting back on tanning for those that want the bronzed look but might not help those who want the mood-enhancing effects of tanning.

The Skin Cancer Foundation indicates the following can be used to help reduce tanning dependence:

  • Use exercise as a way to boost endorphins

  • Apply strict laws and regulations to prevent children from using tanning beds

  • Use spray or creams to get the bronzed look

  • Use sunscreen when out in direct sunlight

  • Educate people on the risks of tanning

Prevention, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, is key. Teaching children the proper use of sunscreen, the importance of practicing sun safety, and reinforcing these lessons from an early age can help to prevent future skin cancer.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.