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Many women have hit the tanning salon once or twice to get a sun-kissed glow, but if you find yourself adding “tanning” to your regular to-do list, you could be at risk of more than just skin cancer and premature aging. A new study, released in the journal Archives of Dermatology, suggests that too many sessions in the tanning bed can actually be a sign of addiction and may lead to anxiety, depression—even excessive drug and alcohol use.
Not every serial tanner is an addict (a relief to "Jersey Shore" cast members, no doubt): The study estimates that only about one in three who tan regularly meet the criteria. So how to tell the difference between a bad habit and an addiction?
Researchers found that addicts tan more than they think they should and even though they know tanning can cause skin cancer, they still feel compelled to do it, much like smokers. Leslie Holman, 23, of Salem, Oregon, who tans every other day, insists she’s not hooked. She blames the gray weather. With most days cold and rainy, Holman says a warm tanning bed is a nice place to relax—not a cry for help.
“I have never had any of those [other] symptoms from going tanning,” she insists. Indeed, while excessive tanning can indicate an addiction—and it’s certainly not good for your health—researchers theorize that addicts aren’t just pursuing a perfect tan, they are actually chasing a high.
Lying on the tanning bed and soaking in ultraviolet light makes the brain release endorphins, the hormones that make eating chocolate or drinking red wine feel so pleasurable. When something feels good, you want to do it again. And again. Tanning can become an addictive process, no different than that experienced by people who get hooked on drugs or alcohol.
Researchers think tanning may also replicate that satisfying feeling of scratching a bothersome itch. Once relieved of the itch, the skin sends “feel good” sensations directly to the brain. The same thing could be happening with UV exposure, explains Elaine Gilmore, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “Some studies have found that the pre-frontal cortex, part of the pleasure-reward center, is activated when people scratch. It’s similar to the area that lights up in people with addictive behavior.”
Because regular tanners are more likely to feel anxious and depressed, tanning’s feel-good impact on the brain could be a way to self-medicate. The study suggests that treating the anxiety and depression directly might stave off the urge to tan, which would in turn reduce people’s risk of skin cancer. (It could also reduce the reliance on drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.)
Still, will Tanners Anonymous groups be springing up across the country? Psychologist Carolyn Heckman doesn’t think so. “I don’t think this is a highly addictive behavior,” says Dr. Heckman, assistant professor of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, who studies tanning addiction. “But yes, if you do it regularly enough and then stop, you might not feel so good and might feel like you really need to go back.” Still, if tanning is how you cope with a bad day or mood, Dr. Heckman suggests that “you learn how to deal with stress in healthier ways.”