Tanning and Heroin Abuse Aren’t as Different as You Think

“Tanning addiction” might seem like part of the trend to throw the word “addiction” onto any behavior that’s a little too common for comfort, but research suggests that tanning shares many features with heroin addiction and other addictions in general. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, over 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning, and more people develop the condition as a result of tanning than get lung cancer because of smoking. You might be tempted to jump to other explanations, but the evidence is mounting and it all points in the same direction: tanning is addictive, just like heroin.

Psychological Case for Tanning Addiction

One of the most well-known aspects of the definition of addiction is continuing to take a substance or engage in a behavior despite knowing the risks and experiencing negative consequences. This in itself is enough to shine the spotlight on tanning as a potentially addictive behavior: despite frequent warnings about the effect of UV light on cancer risk, people continue to tan in huge numbers—with around 30 million tanning indoors every year in the U.S.

The psychological case for tanning being addictive is strengthened by the fact that—alongside wanting to alter their complexions—mood enhancement, relaxation and socialization are often cited as reasons for tanning. Research has found that 21 percent of tanners aged 14 to 17 said they had difficulty stopping tanning, with this being more common in those who’d been tanning for longer and who did so more frequently.

The CAGE questionnaire—a measure of addiction often used for alcohol—has been adapted to suit tanning in order to see how many could be classed as addicted. This included four questions, addressing whether tanners had ever felt like they needed to cut down, whether others had annoyed them by criticizing how often they tan, whether they’d ever felt guilty about tanning and whether they’ve needed to tan first thing in the morning (in the same way alcoholics often have an “eye-opener”).

Regular tanners often class as addicted based on these measures, with one survey finding that 18 percent of Washington-based undergraduate students who tanned met these criteria, and another conducted in Texas finding that over a quarter of those who went to the beach met the criteria. Many of the Washington students also admitted continuing to tan despite severe sunburns and histories of skin cancer in their families.

Physical Evidence for Tanning Addiction

The psychological arguments are fairly compelling, but there are some experiments that reveal the physical reality of tanning addiction more clearly, linking it to heroin addiction. The commonality between the two is tied to what makes exposure to UV light produce a tan: the body produces melanin in response to UV (a pigment that darkens the skin), but also produces endorphins in the same process. Endorphins are the body’s natural equivalent of heroin, working on the opioid system and producing similar effects to the illicit substance. This suggests that the relaxing and mood-enhancing effects reported from tanning actually come from the same biological pathway as the effects of heroin.

One study demonstrated the similarity by exposing partially-shaved mice to UV radiation every day for six weeks. When the mice were given drugs to block opioids, they exhibited withdrawal symptoms (like tremors), and afterward they avoided the place the medicine was given. This is a sign of addiction: the mice started to avoid the medicine because it pushed them into withdrawal, and for any human addict, the next logical step would be to seek out the original substance or behavior again and strengthen the addiction.

The comparison between heroin abuse and tanning may be a little extreme—tanners don’t steal from people or ruin their careers to pursue their habit—but it’s valid nonetheless. Similar studies have confirmed the same effect in human tanners—half of the regular tanners given the opioid-blocking drug before being allowed to tan reported withdrawal symptoms, but none of the less frequent tanners did.

Other studies have shown that when given two almost identical tanning experiences—without being told that one included UV and the other didn’t—tanners consistently show a preference for the UV light. We can’t see UV light, so they had no other way of knowing; the participants said they could tell because the UV helped them relax, and even because it relieved pain.

What Can We Do About Tanning Addiction?

Tanning addiction can be treated in a similar way to other addictions, but with the widespread nature of tanning in society—with over 1 million Americans using tanning salons on an average day—other measures to reduce tanning could be beneficial. One suggestion is to regulate tanning more strictly, as proposed by two public health experts from Georgetown University, establishing a national framework to reduce tanning. This could extend the rules already in place in many states limiting tanning by minors and could involve encouraging universities and other organizations to go “tanning-free” in the same way the risks of smoking have driven campuses to go smoke-free. Such an approach could normalize laws and clear up discrepancies among the different state rules now in place.

Simpler approaches have also been suggested, such as using sunscreen. The effect of sunscreen on the endorphin production associated with UV exposure hasn’t been tested specifically, but along with preventing UV-induced sunburn, it could well be that this simple approach would allow tanners to get a darker complexion without the addictive effects. Similarly, the use of self-tanning creams and sprays could allow tanners to get the appearance they want without the cancer risk.

Regardless of the other approaches used, education about the risks of tanning and taking steps to prevent the development of addiction (particularly among youth) is a crucial strategy. Additionally, support from friends, family and professionals should be encouraged to help individuals learn to relax and feel happier without depending on tanning beds. As hard as it may be to believe, similarities between drug addiction and excessive tanning are more common than differences between them.

Posted on April 22nd, 2016
Posted in News

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