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Frequent Tanning Has Addictive Effects

Frequent users of tanning beds may be getting more out of the experience than darker skin, according to researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. New evidence suggests that ultraviolet light has "feel-good" effects that may be similar to those of some addictive drugs.

"We had previously shown that ultraviolet light has an effect on mood that tanners value," said Mandeep Kaur, M.D., lead author.

"Now, in this small study, we've shown that some tanners actually experience withdrawal symptoms when the 'feel-good' chemicals are blocked."

Frequent tanners are those who tan eight to 15 times a month, or more than necessary to maintain a tan. Infrequent tanners are those who use tanning beds no more than 12 times a year.

There is a theory that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light may produce endorphins, brain chemicals that are linked to pain relief and euphoric feelings, and could play a role in tanning behavior.

UV light occurs naturally in sunlight and is responsible for the tanning and burning effects of the sun. Artificial UV light is used in tanning beds and sunlamps. "Frequent tanning is may be driven in part by a mild dependence on opioids, most likely endorphins," said Steven Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., senior researcher and a professor of dermatology.

The researchers said that while the study is small, it supports the hypothesis that tanning behavior may be driven by endorphins in much the same way that the so-called "runner's high" helps to motivate runners.

Kaur said the finding is significant because, like other risky behaviors, it is important to understand why frequent tanners choose the activity. Exposure to UV through tanning has been shown to damage the genetic information in cells and is linked to the development of skin cancer. Despite this, there was a 300 percent increase in the number of indoor tanners in the United States between 1986 and 1996.

The research was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.