Study: UV Rays May Be Addictive to Tanners


July 13, 2004 — -- If you're one of those people who flock to beaches and salons for the perfect tan, the reason may be more than just skin deep. A new study shows ultraviolet radiation can provide a natural "high" that may lead to a literal tanning addiction.

The study found individuals felt more relaxed when they used tanning beds that exposed them to UV radiation than beds where the UV radiation was blocked.

Researchers speculate the effect on mood might be caused by the release of chemical endorphins when a person is exposed to UV radiation. Endorphins produce feelings of happiness and pleasure, as well as reducing pain and stress in the body. They have also been thought to play a role in alcoholism and drug dependency.

It is this drug-like effect that may explain why Americans tan despite warnings it can cause skin cancer, says Dr. Steven Feldman, associate professor of dermatology, pathology, and public health sciences at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, and lead researcher of the new study.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with about 1 million cases diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The new research, published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, tested whether exposure to UV radiation had a psychological effect on people that could influence their tanning behaviors.

During the study, researchers evaluated the moods of 14 frequent tanners before and after their tanning sessions with both UV and non-UV tanning beds.

For two days a week during the six-week study, participants sampled both the UV and non-UV tanning beds. The beds looked identical, and subjects were not told which one exposed them to UV radiation. On the third day each week, tanners chose which bed they wanted.

They overwhelmingly selected the UV tanning beds.

"Our data suggests that an important reason people tan is that it feels good," says Dr. Anthony Liguori, associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and one of the study's co-researchers.

Past laboratory studies have also proven endorphins are released in response to UV radiation exposure. In addition, a survey of college students revealed that relaxation was one of the most common reasons for tanning.

Liguori says the feelings are completely independent of the "my skin is brown phenomenon. … It's that feeling they get in the [tanning] bed and it is a similar phenomenon seen when endorphins are released."

Tara Hendrix, a 31-year-old mother of two children and a tanner for eight years, was one of the study's participants. She uses tanning beds twice a week as a supplement because she says time spent at work and caring for her children leaves her little room for outdoor tanning.

The main reason Hendrix says she tans is to unwind. "I need the nap at lunch. It's relaxing," she explains. "And No. 2, it's the looks. I think I look less sickly and more attractive."

Researchers pointed out the test results are from a specific population of people where "tanning is a part of their lives." This group uses tanning beds year round and should not be generalized to recreational tanners, who may tan for special occasions, the study's designers said.

"We're looking at people who are most likely to show addiction. It may be that this drug-like effect is just for a subpopulation." says Feldman.

According to the researchers, from 1986-1996 there has been a three-fold increase in the percentage of people in the United States who have used tanning beds. Women, along with young people ages 16 to 34, are more likely to use tanning beds, they added.

"It is fair to think of tanning as an addiction. If the definition is performing a behavior that makes you feel good but is unhealthful and is a habit that is hard to break without significant effort, tanning clearly qualifies," says Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University Medical Center.

"It is potentially addictive, especially knowing that UV is a carcinogen and many tanners are fair-skinned individuals who are at a higher risk to develop skin cancer," adds Dr. Henry Lim, adjunct professor in the department of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Despite the results, Liguori says, it's premature to conclude tanning is addictive. He believes further studies are needed.

"Before this research, no one really thought that tanning was addictive [in the way] drugs are addictive," says Liguori. "When someone is addicted to a drug, a telltale sign is that they have difficulty stopping. Here we looked at people who tan frequently. They can't go for more than a few days without tanning. If we go on to show more evidence that it is addictive, then one possible indicator would be the difficulty in quitting."

Feldman plans a follow-up experiment in which tanners would receive a drug that blocks the effects of endorphins. The test will determine if it is really endorphins that are responsible for the feel-good effects of UV radiation. If so, then the drug should also block a person's desire for the UV bed.

Feldman also suggests other factors might contribute to tanning addiction, such as vitamin D.

Liguori says he hopes the findings will make people more conscious of their tanning habits and allow them to evaluate why they tan. "Be aware if you hadn't thought of this before," he warns. "Ask yourself if you're capable of stopping."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events