Health & Fitness

July 6, 2014

Excessive tanners could be hooked on a sunshine high

Evidence is building that some people tan excessively because they can’t help it. They’re addicted. Despite all the skin cancer warnings and consequences, they are compelled to bake their bodies because it makes them feel good. Dermatologists and some government efforts are trying to stop the addictions before they start.

Baking in the sun makes some people feel good. Really good. So they crave it and pursue it far beyond common sense.

A growing body of research suggests that they can’t help themselves — that tanning may be addictive. Excessive baskers could be getting an endorphin rush, a hormonal high, that pushes them to tan repeatedly.

That conclusion partly comes from laboratory experiments. Lab mice, if deprived of their daily doses of sunshine, resemble addicts deprived of their drugs. They show withdrawal symptoms.

A study published last month in the medical journal Cell found that ultraviolet light exposure for lab mice — equivalent to a daily half-hour in the midday Florida sun — led to “an opioid-mediated hedonic experience.”

In other words, the report from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital said, laboratory mice appeared to miss their daily high when they didn’t get their sun time.

Most sun seekers already know that exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or some tanning beds can cause dangerous skin cancers and other skin damage.

“But some people would rather get their basal cells cut off than give up tanning,” Emily Horner, a dermatologist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, said of some skin cancer patients.

What pushes people to continue to do something they know is bad for them? Authorities are leaning toward addiction as an answer.

So, “we’re now measuring tanning addiction with the same focus we do alcoholism or drug dependence,” Horner said.

Several academic studies have found that the problem of excessive tanning — both outdoors and on indoor tanning beds — is noted especially among college-age women, though it’s certainly not limited to that demographic.

Academics aren’t sold on the idea that tanning is just a beauty quest. Some sun exposure is good; it’s the body’s main source of vitamin D. Humans need some of it.

But scientists think tanning addictions might be tied to other psychiatric conditions. Some research indicates that excessive tanning seems to be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorders and body dysmorphic disorders, the latter being a heavy focus on real or imagined physical flaws.

A study published last fall by the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan tracked 533 college students, male and female, who said they tanned to some degree. Based on questionnaire answers, 12 percent were categorized as “problematic” tanners, often accompanied by indications of excessive drinking or other “significant psychiatric distress.”

Researchers and dermatologists who see sun-afflicted patients sometimes adapt what’s known as CAGE questions — long used with alcoholics — to find out why some people over-tan.

The initials stand for asking people whether they feel like they should Cut down, whether they’re Annoyed when others ask them about it, whether they feel Guilty about it, and whether they feel like they need it as an Eye-opener.

In the Michigan study of problematic tanners, 6 in 10 answered yes to the eye-opener question — “When you wake up in the morning, do you want to tan?”

More than 8 in 10 of the problematic tanners agreed that they continue to tan despite knowing that it is bad for their skin, causing wrinkles, premature aging, sun spots or worse.

Dermatologists say the best way to prevent tanning addiction is not to start intentional tanning in the first place. They’re getting some help from legislation and federal rulemaking.

Horner noted that the Food and Drug Administration last year toughened regulations on tanning beds and reclassified them as Class 2 medical devices, indicating a greater potential for harm.

And the federal government, as well as many states, has banned or required on-site parental permission for youths under age 18 to use tanning beds.

Finally, if people persist in tanning, dermatologists advise, they should use sunscreen and at least get yearly skin exams.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to

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