Sunbathing for hours or using an indoor tanning bed to get a healthy glow isn’t healthy at all – it can be a sign of addiction and cause skin cancer, too.
Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation damages the DNA of skin cells, resulting in premature aging of the skin. It’s the major risk factor for most skin cancers, too, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, the majority of skin cancers — the most common malignancies in the U.S. — are caused by too much exposure to UV rays. Most of this exposure is from the sun, but it also comes from tanning beds and sunlamps.
Despite these well-known hazards, countless people risk skin cancer, as well as wrinkles and age spots, by spending hours sunbathing or basking in the artificial glow of a tanning bed.
Patricia Krentcil was one of them. She first made headlines back in 2012 for her leathered and deep-fried skin — the result of baking her skin in tanning beds 20 times a month. Krentcil became known as “Tan Mom,” and claims she was addicted to tanning.
It turns out, she might be right. Yale research suggests tanning addiction is real, a form of dependence associated with other addictive behaviors.
For their study, Yale public health experts surveyed 499 people who had a history of sunbathing or using a tanning bed. The results showed those who felt compelled to tan — which the researchers call tanning dependence or tanning addiction — were six times as likely to also be dependent on alcohol. What’s more, the research subjects with a tanning addiction three times as likely to suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression linked to season changes when there’s less sunlight in the fall and winter.
The research also revealed people with a tanning addiction were five times more likely to exhibit a need to work out compulsively. However, exercise addiction hasn’t been well researched, so the Yale team noted it’s too early to know for sure how exercise and tanning addictions may be linked.
“One hypothesis behind the finding is that people who exercise excessively do so because they are very aware of their appearance, and they also feel that being tanned improves their appearance,” said Brenda Cartmel, PhD, senior research scientist in the Yale School of Public Health’s department of chronic disease epidemiology. “Or it may be that we will eventually find out that these individuals have more of an addictive or risk-taking personality type.”
The underlying biological reasons some people are addicted to tanning aren’t fully understood but appear related to the way UV light increases melanin, a pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color, and endorphins — hormones secreted by the brain and nervous system that activate the body’s opiate receptors and produce a “feel good” effect.
“The biological rationale for tanning dependence is that exposure to UV light results in both melanin, and endorphin production,” said Cartmel.
Yale Public School of Health researchers previously found a strong association between indoor tanning and basal cell carcinoma, a type of non-melanoma skin cancer, and they’ve supported efforts to ban the use of indoor tanning beds by youngsters under 17.
“We hope our findings will help researchers design interventions specifically targeted to help people who are tanning dependent and thus reduce skin cancers,” said Cartmel.
For example, recognizing and treating SAD could help people recover from tanning addiction. Therapies include exposure 20 to 60 minutes daily, from early fall to early spring to late fall, to bright, artificial light via a special light box that filters out UV rays. Antidepressants, vitamin D supplements, and psychotherapy can also help, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“There are ways of addressing SAD other than indoor tanning,” said Cartmel. “Regarding the alcohol dependence association, it may be possible that addressing that behavior could help address tanning dependence, too.”
June 13, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN