Tanning Similar to Drug Addiction?


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Tanning has become more and more popular and many people will say that having dark skin makes you look and feel better. Television shows like the Jersey Shore, actually view tanning as part of their lifestyle. We have all seen that dark bronze girl walking around in the dead of winter and joke to each other saying "someone's addicted to tanning". Now, new studies are showing that the statement may be true.

When I think of someone being addicted to tanning, I think they are just addicted to the way they look when they are tan. Similar to women who always get their nails done, it is not physically addicting but they continue to do it because they simply love the way their nails look after a trip to the salon. New studies are showing that the UV lights in tanning beds actually activate parts of the brain that play a role in addiction. One study concluded saying UV light was a type of substance disorder.

UT Southwestern medical center researched it even further saying "people who frequently use tanning beds may be spurred by an addictive neurological reward-and-reinforcement trigger".  In this experiment, frequent tanners participated in this study and went tanning on two different occasions. One was a controlled occasion where they went to a regular tanning bed and were exposed to the UV light and the other where a special filter blocked only the UV light without the tanners' knowledge. By using a radioisotpe, they were able to monitor the brain activity during each tanning session. Brain images showed that when the study subjects were exposed to UV rays, the areas of the brain that are associated with addiction were activated much more than when they were not exposed to the UV light.

The participants were also asked after each tanning session how much they wanted to tan again. The tanners who were just exposed to the UV light had less desire saying they've "gotten their fix" and the tanners who were not exposed to the UV light felt that they needed to go tanning again.

An article in the New York Times explains another reason tanners are addicted to tanning is because "tanners also report mood enhancement, relaxation and socialization". Most of these results show that tanning is addiciting in some way or the other, but does it affect every person the same way? Does it affect someone who lives in New York differently than someone who lives in Florida? Whether the UV light is physically activating addiction in the brain or girls simply just want the look of dark skin, women continue to tan despite the known risks associated with tanning.

5 Comments

I don't think that tanning effects users in different areas differently, but rather, it's the people who are going tanning and their thoughts on it. If UV lights do cause a tanning addiction, they will addict people regardless of where they live. Just because fewer NY citizens go tanning doesn't necessarily mean that they're less effected by the UV rays and therefore less inclined to go to tanning booths. I think a lot of people have stopped going tanning because of the harmful evidence linking it to skin cancer, not because it effects them differently. It's also interesting to think of how people with darker skin tones process UV rays in comparison to those with lighter skin tones, and whether that may lessen their chances of getting addicted or getting skin cancer.

Like you, I always thought that the addiction to tanning came from the satisfaction that one gets from appearing darker. I never even considered that the UV light actually contained an addictive chemical! However, if this is the case, then what makes individuals addicted to tanning in the sun? Are people who are constantly tanning at the beach and the pool the ones who are also tanning under the UV light? Could an increase in use of tanning beds cause individuals to be more likely to want to tan in the sun?

Good topic! I wonder if an addiction to tanning has anything to do with... I don't know... it being the reverse effect of lack of sunlight? If that makes sense? I know that there's "seasonal depression disorder" where people who don't get a lot of sunlight (because the live in a part of the world, like Alaska, that may go months without it) become depressed. Here's a better description here:

http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/seasonal_affective_disorder_sad/hic_what_is_seasonal_depression.aspx

I think the idea that tanning could contribute to "mood enhancement" may give my theory some validity... apparently, UV rays in tanning beds produce the same levels of Vitamin D as the Sun.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanning_bed

Hi Megan!
I found an interesting article by The New York Times features research published in Addiction Journal suggesting that people who frequently use tanning beds experience changes in brain activity during their tanning sessions that mimic the patterns of drug addiction. 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 may help explain why some people continue to tan often despite awareness about risks such as skin cancer, premature aging and wrinkles. I don’t see why people who are “addicted” to tanning can’t switch to a healthier alternative to achieve their glow in a less harmful way. Self-tanners such as lotions, wipes and spray tans can gradually darken your skin after a few applications. Why do you think people keep continuing to tan when these options are safer and just as effective?
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/how-tanning-changes-the-brain/

Although I remain convinced the so-called "addiction" to tanning is absolutely superficial-based and has to do with general feminine insecurities (not to be sexist-but the majority of frequent tanners ARE girls), this definitely is an interesting take on why tanners refuse to stop even after being aware of how life-threatening it is.

As I do with most blog topics that interest me, I decided to look more into the specifics of tanning as an actual addiction. I was curious as to what parts of the brain play a role in addiction and if it is true that UV-rays can stimulate them in such a way that someone can become addicted.

This New York Times article first lists a part of the brain called the dorsal striatum, a portion of the forebrain that is activated when we are presented with things we associate with reward (it gives the examples being activated when presented with high-end foods or a drug).

Another article tells of two other parts of the brain that play a similar role in addiction that were observed to be stimulated under UV-exposure. These were the anterior insula and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. These two are also linked to being stimulated under rewarding circumstances. By stimulation, this article explained that blood rushes to these specific areas. But does this blood rush indicate actual addiction?

The only thing that shakes me from my firm stand on tanning addiction being superficially-based is the part of the study that you mentioned in which people given "fake UV-rays" felt that they were missing something and most reported they wanted to go tanning again, while the people who were exposed to actual UV felt they had gotten their fix. That does sound something like actual addiction, and has nothing to do with the result of tanning, but as someone who has gone tanning and felt somewhat addicted, I know it was strictly based on how good I felt with darker skin.


Regardless of what's true or not, tanning should be avoided at all costs - especially in tanning beds. A very recent study has proven that artificial tanning increases the risk of malignant melanoma by 74%! That's a very large percentage. If the addiction to tanning is strictly superficially-based (as I believe), or if it is,somehow, a result of UV-ray brain stimulation, the addiction needs to be addressed and resolved. It's life-threatening - maybe even moreso than some life-threatening drugs.

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