Addicted to Tanning Booths?
Study suggests UV light boosts endorphin levels in sun lovers
MONDAY, July 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If you just can't stay away from your neighborhood tanning salon, new research suggests that you may have developed a dangerous habit you can't break.
You could be fighting ultraviolet light addiction.
You read correctly. Habitual patrons of tanning parlors may be drawn to the ultraviolet exposure for its mood-boosting ability, says a study in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
It's this mood-boosting effect, not just the bronzed skin, that brings tanning salon fans back for more, said study author Dr. Steven Feldman, a professor of dermatology, pathology and public health sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
When tanners were offered a choice at one point in the study between tanning beds with UV lights and impostor beds, most chose the UV bed every time, even though the two versions looked identical. "Like Pavlov's dog, they chose more UV light," Feldman said.
In the research, Feldman evaluated 14 people -- one man and 13 women -- between the ages of 18 and 45 who tanned twice a week, splitting the time equally between a bed that emitted UV light and one that did not. Subjects' moods were measured before and after each exposure.
The moods were better and relaxation greater after the subjects had used the UV light beds, Feldman said.
Finally, the tanners were told they could opt for a third tanning session on Fridays in addition to the Monday and Wednesday sessions. They were also given their choice of tanning beds.
"Twelve of the 14 chose to go back on Fridays," Feldman said. "Of the 12, 11 -- or 92 percent -- picked the UV bed every time. The UV bed was reinforcing.
"They would say, 'This is the bed that relaxes me more,'" he said. "'This is the bed [where] my stress goes away.'"
So, what is the underlying reason for better moods after UV exposure?
Feldman speculates that endorphins, the "feel-good" chemicals released in the brain during exercise, for instance, may also be released when the body is exposed to UV light. Previous laboratory studies have shown endorphin release with UV light exposure, he said.
Another expert said the study reflects traditional knowledge by dermatologists but offers a new twist with the potential for UV light's mood-boosting effect. "The concept is not really new," said Dr. David J. Goldberg, vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation.
"We all know this, that sunbathing is addictive," he said. "For most people, the whole idea of getting sun begets more getting sun. This study just underlines that. It is a well-controlled study and a well-designed study."
Like most dermatologists, Goldberg said he has tried to educate sun worshipers and tanning booth fans to the harms of UV light. "If [talking about ] wrinkles or brown spots doesn't do it, we talk about squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. And if that doesn't do it, we talk about melanomas."
UV radiation induces mutations and some will lead to skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Exposure to radiation from a tanning booth may even be more risky than exposure to natural sunlight.
Feldman now has another study in mind: He wants to block endorphins in frequent tanners with the use of a medication, then see if the tanners can distinguish between UV light-emitting beds and those that emit no light. If his endorphin theory is correct, the tanners whose endorphins are blocked would not be able to distinguish between the UV light-emitting beds and the ones emitting no UV light.
Meanwhile, Feldman tells addicted tanners ready to seek help to ask their doctors about trying remedies already proven to treat other addictions. Medications that help smokers kick the habit, for instance, might also work for kicking the tanning booth habit, he speculates.
For more information on skin cancer, visit the National Library of Medicine.