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When Tanning Becomes an Addiction

Sunbathing is a dangerous compulsion for some, study suggests

TUESDAY, Aug. 16, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Some sun worshippers may actually be psychologically addicted to tanning, researchers report.

The finding may explain why, despite widespread campaigns to alert people to the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, many people continue to sunbathe or use tanning booths.

In two related studies, researchers also found that state laws can keep children from patronizing tanning booths, and that labeling a sunscreen "high protection" doesn't lull sunbathers into a false sense of security so that they stay in the sun longer.

In the addiction study, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston asked 145 area beachgoers a series of questions derived from questionnaires originally used to identify alcohol or drug abuse.

They found that 26 percent to 53 percent of the beachgoers could be classified as UV-tanning-dependent.

"This is a new idea, and we didn't know how it would turn out, although there has been mixed evidence from other studies suggesting that tanning increases [brain] endorphin production, which could be addictive. Certainly this would explain why educational interventions haven't been more successful," study senior author Richard Wagner said in a prepared statement.

The findings appear in the journal Archives of Dermatology.

Another study in the same journal found that state laws that set age limits on indoor tanning do help reduce the number of adolescents and children using these facilities.

The University of Colorado study found that in three states that have age restrictions, 62 percent of indoor tanning businesses would not allow a 12-year-old to tan, compared with just 18 percent of indoor tanning businesses in states with no age restrictions.

The three states with age restrictions were: Texas, 13 years old; Illinois, 14 years old; and Wisconsin, 16 years old.

The study authors noted that changing the tanning behavior of teens is an important cancer-prevention strategy, since adolescence is a critical period during which UV radiation increases skin cancer risk.

"Given the prevalence of indoor UV tanning, especially by adolescent girls, and the known risks of indoor tanning, public health efforts need to be directed at this under-recognized carcinogen exposure," the study authors wrote.

A third study in the same journal found that sunbathers who wear "high protection" sunscreen don't spend more time in the sun than those wearing "basic protection" sunscreen. The French study included 367 people tracked at four seaside resorts.

Those given products labeled as high protection sunscreen (SPF 40) spent an average of 14.2 hours sunbathing in one week, compared to between 12.9 to 14.6 hours for people given products (SPF 40 or SPF 12) labeled as basic protection sunscreen.

Rates of sunburn were higher among those who used the basic-protection SPF 12 sunscreen (24 percent) than among those who used the 40 SPF sunscreen labeled as basic protection (14 percent).

"In this population, our findings do not support the hypothesis that a higher SPF induces a higher exposure by delaying the alarm signs nor the hypothesis that mentioning 'high protection' on the label may induce longer exposure by giving an impression of safety," the study authors wrote.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about sunlight and UV radiation.

SOURCE: University of Texas Medical Branch at Galvestion and JAMA/Archives journals, news releases, Aug. 15, 2005
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