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Is tanning addictive? UNC addiction expert on disturbing trend

For many sun worshippers, tanning is a summertime ritual. With the arrival of June, they take off in droves to the nearest recreational body of water, spread out their blankets, and prop up their lounge chairs to bask in the warmth and glory.

But for some, baking their bodies isn’t just a once-a-year event. Studies, though limited in number, have spotted a disturbing trend: tanning is addictive.

“It may range anywhere from 20 to even close to 40 percent of the people who go to the beach regularly or who go to tanning salons who would meet criteria for tanning addiction,” said Matthew Howard, Ph.D., the UNC School of Social Work’s Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Services Policy and Information.

The dozen or so studies that have been conducted suggest that tanning dependency seems to be more prevalent among white, lighter-skinned, young women. Overall, rough estimates indicate the practice likely affects a small percentage of the total U.S. population.

Even so, these same studies share what appears to be another common thread: when individuals are repeatedly exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, their bodies release the same opioid-kind of chemicals that are similar to those found in morphine and heroin. In other words, there are theories that there may be a drug-like mood-enhancing effect to tanning, explained Howard, whose research interests include inhalant substance abuse and disorders, substance use among juvenile offenders and alcohol dependence. Studies also show that people who use drugs and alcohol are more at risk for developing a tanning addiction.

“The people who seem to be most prone to being addicted are people who would say that when they tan, it relaxes them or if they’re depressed, it alleviates their depression,” he said. “It makes them feel better. And then when they’re unable to tan, they seem to show signs and symptoms of what looks like withdrawal.”

As a result, individuals with a dependency may tan far more often than they need to, sometimes as much as 40 hours a week, not only to maintain a bronze body but to sustain the pleasurable effect that tanning provides, Howard said.

No doubt, these extreme tanners, most of whom likely start the practice in their teen years, share in the harmful risks of too much UV exposure. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), these risks include an increased chance of developing basal and squamous cell skin cancer—more than 2 million cases are diagnosed in the country each year—as well as melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The ACS estimates that at least 75,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year. Research has shown that a person’s overall risk to developing skin cancer is directly tied to how much sun and the number of burns an individual is exposed to, especially at a young age.

“People don’t understand what a really serious disease skin cancer is,” Howard said. “People tend to think, ‘Well, that’s 40 years down the road, and I’m in my twenties, so I don’t care about that.’”

Too many also ignore the outward physical signs of too much sun damage, including premature aging. “The irony is that people are getting caught up in this tanning behavior probably because it makes them feel good and because of the notion that it makes them look better, and it’s just destroying their looks in the long run.”

Long-term, a longitudinal study on tanning is needed, Howard said, to explore the behavior in more detail, though funding for such research is currently hard to come by. Nevertheless, a New Jersey mother’s recent arrest raised national interest in the potential addictive properties of tanning. The Caucasian woman with a deep dark copper complexion was arrested on child endangerment charges after allegedly allowing her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth.

The incident also has renewed calls for more industry regulation on salons. The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reports that at least 30 million people use indoor tanning beds every year. At least 33 states have laws governing the use of tanning beds, including bans that prevent minors from using them without a parent’s permission. In January, California became the first state in the nation to ban the use of UV tanning beds for all minors, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported.

Some research has suggested that the same medications that are prescribed to help wean alcoholics from alcohol might also help those who are addicted to the sun. But again, more studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of such an approach, Howard said. Ultimately, heightened awareness may be more beneficial.

“More than medications, what’s going to be needed is a public health approach in terms of taxation, regulation, and in terms of just educating folks about the dangers of it.”