Tanning addiction is out of control. Despite a flourishing market in sunscreens and a campaign by dermatologists that can be tracked back to 1983, millions of Americans continue to abuse UV (Ultraviolet) rays. With nearly 30 million Americans tanning indoors every year, and more than a million visiting tanning salons on an average day, tanning is more popular than ever before. When the clinical experts at ONE80CENTER learned of the latest reports that directly link tanning to the addictive centers of the brain, this report became a necessity. New scientific research shows that people who frequently tan experience changes in brain activity that mimic the patterns of drug addiction. Scientists have suspected for some time that frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation has the potential to become addictive, but the new research is the first to actually examine the brains of tanners as they lay in tanning beds.
Compulsive Tanning Is A Brain Disorder
What the researchers found was that several parts of the brain that play a role in addiction were activated when the subjects were exposed to UV rays. The findings appear in the journal, Addiction Biology. They help explain why some people continue to tan despite awareness about risks such as skin cancer, premature aging and wrinkles. Dermatologists express great frustration with their seeming inability to deter tanning behavior, particularly among adolescents and young adults.
There are many explanations for this failure, including the widespread belief that people look better (read healthier and perhaps thinner) when they are tan. This notion has helped to foster the multibillion-dollar indoor tanning industry, supported by some young patrons as often as 20 times a month. But in recent years, another explanation has emerged for which there is now considerable scientific support: the idea that exposing one’s skin to UV radiation has addictive potential.
As with alcohol, not everyone who is exposed becomes dependent on the sun. But there are enough UV abusers — one in five college students, perhaps half of beach habitués and 70 percent of indoor tanners, according to various studies — to warrant a new medical diagnostic category: tanning addiction.
Dr. Richard F. Wagner Jr., a dermatologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, reported in a comprehensive study that as many as half of local beachgoers met the psychiatric definition of a substance abuse disorder. Although many say that a tanned appearance is their strongest motivation for sunbathing and tanning bed use, they also report mood enhancement, relaxation and socialization as their reasons for tanning.
As a result, the incidence of skin cancers, including potentially fatal melanoma, continues to rise. This year, 3.5 million new cases of superficial skin cancers that often can be disfiguring, and an estimated 68,720 melanomas, will be diagnosed among Americans. Many people think a tan protects them by helping block the damaging effects of UV radiation. In fact, a tan represents skin damage. Even those who escape cancer will eventually experience the aging effects of repeated tanning: loose, wrinkled, leathery skin that can make people look decades older than they are. Frequent tanners showed signs of both physiological and psychological dependence.
As with cigarette smoking and other addictive disorders, attempts to curtail UV abuse through education about its dangers seem to fall on deaf ears. Clearly, something else is driving the behavior, and for some people that something seems to be addiction. Researchers gave a modified version of the test often used to root out alcohol addiction called CAGE to tanners.
CAGE – Do You Have A Tanning Addiction?
CAGE is an acronym for four questions:
1. Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your tanning?
2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your tanning?
3. Have you ever felt guilty about tanning?
4. Have you ever felt you needed to tan first thing in the morning — as an eye opener?
26 percent of the beachgoers met the CAGE criteria for addiction. Release of pleasure-giving endorphins in the brains of UV abusers is the likely stimulus for tanning addiction. “What this shows is that the brain is in fact responding to UV light, and it responds in areas that are associated with reward,” said Dr. Bryon Adinoff, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and an author of the study. “These are areas, particularly the striatum, that we see activated when someone is administered a drug or a high-value food like sugar.”
Dr. Adinoff and his colleagues decided to go a step further. They recruited a small group of people from tanning salons who said that they liked to tan at least three times a week and that maintaining a tan was important to them. The frequent tanners agreed to be injected with a radioisotope that allowed researchers to monitor how tanning affected their brain activity. Brain images showed that during regular tanning sessions, when the study subjects were exposed to UV rays, several key areas of the brain lighted up; all the areas that have been implicated in addiction. When the UV light was filtered out, however, those areas of the brain showed far less activity.
In another study, research by Dr. Steven R. Feldman at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center demonstrated that frequent salon tanners experienced withdrawal symptoms when given the drug naltrexone. Associated with opiate recovery, this drug blocks the pleasurable effects of narcotics. Frequent tanners, but not occasional tanning patrons, reported symptoms like nausea and jitteriness when naltrexone blocked their endorphins. In other words, like junkies, tanners actually experienced withdrawal symptoms when the UV rays were blocked from lighting up their pleasure centers.
Like the vast majority of dermatologists, ONE80CENTER is in favor of strict regulations of tanning salons, especially prohibiting patronage by minors. Tanning has been shown to be an addictive disorder that affects the brain and stimulates the pleasure centers of the tanner. Without further education and help, the tanning epidemic in the United States will only worsen, leading to greater health consequences and more cases of this new addictive disorder. If you have a problem with tanning abuse and need help, contact ONE80CENTER today. Our individualized program can help you find recovery.