Is Too Much Tanning Really an Addiction?

By Walter Armstrong 08/11/11

A respectable new study finds that over-exposure to UV rays may be addictive for some people. Is it time for an intervention on John Boehner?

Is too much tanning a psychological problem? Photo

Dusky-hued House Speaker John Boehner and Jersey Shore's Snooki might share at least one thing in common. They both could be hooked on excessive tanning. A slew of recent headlines report that sunlight—and ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted from tanning beds—can actually be addictive for some people. A new study in Addiction Biology found that the UV rays in tanning salons trigger a "reward-and-reinforcement loop" in the brain that closely resembles the neurological thumbprint of addiction. This partly explains the baffling popularity of indoor tanning in the US, where more than a million people spend money and time to elevate their risk of skin cancers and premature aging every day. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center exposed some regular tanners to two fake-bake experiences—one with UV rays, the other with filtered light, free of UV rays—and then asked them which they liked better. UV won by a mile. And blood flow in the tanning brain's reward center was greatly increased by the ultraviolet light. This so-called reward-and-reinforcement signal also occurs when people drink, drug and gamble, leading the researchers to leap to the "addiction" conclusion. The theory isn't new: In 2000 humor writer David Sedaris coined the term tanorexia for people who engage in excessive tanning. Last year a highly-publicized study found that 30-40 % of regular indoor tanners met addiction criteria on the two standard tests, indicating that too many doses of UV may, like too many martinis, be a form of self-medication. But Fix contributor Maia Szalavitz throws cold water on this sizzling buzz in her Healthland blog at "Simply demonstrating that a person's reward areas light up doesn't prove that she's an addict. …Addiction is much more complicated. We do a disservice both to the understanding of the brain and to our decisions regarding drug treatment and policy when we think about it so simplistically."


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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.