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Tanning: For Some People, It Really Could Be an Addiction

Tanning: For Some People, It Really Could Be an Addiction

New research into how the brain behaves when exposed to sunlight, and specifically UV rays, reveals that, for some people at least, tanning really might be an addiction.

What’s more, researchers involved in the study, which is published this week in the science journal Cell, believe that their research speaks to a need to be more proactive about understanding why people rely on tanning to make themselves feel good, and how we can use this insight to help them stop.

There’s a big caveat that we need to highlight right from the start, though: this was an animal experiment and so it comes with all the usual concerns, both ethical and practical, the latter of which being that the research may not translate directly in humans. That said, let’s examine what the researchers did, and what they found.

The scientists took a sample of lab mice and then shaved their backs. They exposed the mice to the equivalent of half an hour of midday Florida sun every day for a six week-test period. What they found was that, as expected, UV radiation in this exposure led to the mice producing a particular protein (proopiomelanocortin) that, when broken down, causes pigmentation of the skin — put simply, a tan. However, they also found that the body also produced a glut of endorphins, our so-called “pleasure chemicals.” These chemicals have similar effects on the brain as heroin or morphine.

The researchers extended their study by investigating what would happen if they blocked these pleasurable chemicals by using a drug that is similar to those used in rehab clinics. Mice who were given the drug displayed visible symptoms of withdrawal, including shaking and tremors. Furthermore, and showing intelligent behavior, the mice began avoiding the sites within the test area where the drugs were administered.

As mice brains behave in ways that are similar to how human brains behave, the researchers think that it’s highly probable that humans experience the same “high” from tanning, and in much the same way, as the mice displayed during the test period.

What’s more, this research actually builds on a good body of other studies. For instance, the withdrawal phenomenon that was witnessed in the above mouse sample has actually been seen before. A 2006 study involved giving people who tan a drug called naltrexone, which works to block the endorphins that are produced during tanning. Around 50% of frequent tanners (those who tanned at least once a week) who were given naltrexone before they were exposed to UV rays showed signs of withdrawal, including nausea and tremors. These symptoms weren’t observed in non-frequent tanners.

Even more interestingly, researchers have previously investigated whether regular sun-bed users could tell the difference between UV light and non-UV light sun-beds. They found that a majority of the sample who frequently engaged in tanning had an overwhelming preference (95%) for the UV light beds over the non UV beds. Those test subjects reported feeling more relaxed, and some who reported mild pain beforehand even said that it helped to ease those symptoms too.

This also explains why, even though we know the risks of tanning, which at their most serious is skin cancer, some people feel great anxiety about stopping and report being unable to do so. There’s also cause to think that tanning and the endorphin high creates a cycle that can be incredibly damaging.

There’s reason to suspect that, like with other drugs, people who tan will eventually experience a plateau in their endorphin high because the body will become accustomed to their tanning practices. As a result they, like other addicts, will have to expose themselves to greater levels of UV rays in order to get the same high. Technically, you can’t overdose on UV in the same way you can on heroin, but it goes without saying that increasing our exposure to damaging UV rays only further increases the risks of skin cancer. For people who begin tanning at an early age, this could be particularly dangerous.

“It may be necessary … to more proactively protect individuals, including teens, from the risks of an avoidable, potentially life-threatening exposure and to view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway,” lead researchers Gillian L. Fell and Kathleen C. Robinson of Harvard Medical School concluded.

Let’s be clear here, though: there’s a big difference between so-called tanning addiction and the use of drugs like heroin. People who seem to rely on tanning have yet to be observed literally giving up all their worldly possessions, sacrificing family relationships and engaging in significant criminal behavior in order to support their health-destroying habit. Therefore, comparing the two addictions more broadly isn’t helpful or accurate. What the researchers are saying isn’t that tanning is as addictive as opiod use, but that it displays functional similarities. As a result, this research suggests that, for some people who have formed this habit, extra support might be needed to help people quit their tanning ways.

For those of you who like to spend safe time out in the sun, there’s good news, though. While this research didn’t specifically look into sunscreen protection, the researchers apparently see no reason why a full-coverage sunscreen, that blocks UVA and UVB rays, could not only protect from burning but also cut down on the endorphin production that can get people hooked on tanning.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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52 comments

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8:32AM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

Thanks for the star, Gerald L. Reading your comment, and others, I now wonder if we're talking about the same "condition", though.

I'm not addicted to the look that tanning gives me; I'm Black, or African-Canadian, call it what you will, but my skin is already dark, so I don't even "look" tanned. What I relish is feeling the sunshine on my skin, as much sun on as much skin as possible.
I don't even like tanning beds; I tried years ago, for just 2 sessions, and I never went back. It doesn't give me the same feeling of happiness as the real sun. During the winter months, I prefer to sit in front of a big window on sunny days, to work, read, or knit, and "drink my fill" of sunshine. Really, it's the sun on my skin that I need, not the tanned look.
Am I really tanorexic, then? Maybe, if I use an analogy to anorexia, which some experts say, isn't really about looks. Or, maybe I'm something else (I don't know what to call it; sun-addict, heliomaniac...) and I'm addicted to the endorphins. Or... maybe I'm just Black, and I need more sun than a person with lighter skin.

3:53PM PDT on Jul 6, 2014

Another dumb study at the expense of animals. Does anyone really care as to why people want to suntan? My sister sun- tanned herself so much at one point she looked like a hunk of jerky with blue eyes. The sun is definitely an enjoyment but did a study on mice need to be done?

9:53PM PDT on Jul 3, 2014

Hollow Wood has created negative influences. Over tanned individuals actually have a distasteful appearance to me. ***** to tanorexia, a good description of a vanity issue with potentially dangerous health implications.

6:02PM PDT on Jul 2, 2014

Yes, tanorexia.
I think I suffer from it. And though, as it says in the article "People who seem to rely on tanning have yet to be observed literally giving up all their worldly possessions, sacrificing family relationships and engaging in significant criminal behavior", I do remember missing out on some parties and family reunions because I knew they would be held indoors, and there might be some sun that day. I remember getting into serious arguments with boyfriends while on trips, because I never wanted away from the beach. I even missed work on more than one occasion to get some sun time. Those things can take a toll on your life, in the long run.

One time, I was at work, and it was so sunny outside, it drove me mad, I just got up and went tanning! I offered no excuse, and fortunately, my boss didn't hear of it. I remember feeling like an alcoholic that sees wine being given out for free, and not being able to get some. I guess tanorexia is more like alcoholism, in that sun and alcohol are legal, and everywhere. The main différences are that sun is free, but you can only get sunshine on your whole body during a small part of the year, where I live at least (Québec). That is a blessing; imagine if I lived in southern California!

5:01AM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

Tanorexia, unfortunately very very common in the country where I live.

4:09AM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

Thank you.

9:11AM PDT on Jun 29, 2014

dependence on any one thing for feeling good seems to be a problem

7:25PM PDT on Jun 28, 2014

I'm a long-time sun bather (when I can, which isn't often) but I'm not attracted to sun beds. The real sun, for a few minutes at a time, is what I love. I am not a bit surprised that sun exposure provokes an endorphin release. I'm sure that's what I've been feeling! Also, I'm not concerned with the small amount of sun bathing I do in terms of skin cancer. I feel the benefits (Vit. D production, stress relief, a few peaceful moments) outweigh the problems (skin cancer, wrinkles). But I have no personal or family history of skin cancer. Your mileage may vary.

11:12AM PDT on Jun 28, 2014

Tanning beds = cancer

1:54AM PDT on Jun 28, 2014

My aunt has a bed in here basement and her face looks like an old catchers mitt. She thinks she looks good and I guess that's okay but she looks scary to the rest of us. White folk tend to look down their noses at people of color then turn around and try to achieve that same look. What hypocrites. These things are dangerous.

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