Shedding light on tanning addiction

For some sun worshippers, tanning is more than a summertime ritual.

Baking their bodies goes way beyond 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.  Howard’s 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), the 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 who use drugs and alcohol are more at risk for developing a tanning addiction.

“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.’”

Adapted from a School of Social Work newsletter article written by Susan White. Read more from the article.

Published July 2, 2012.