Tanning may be addictive as drugs or alcohol, study finds

Adam Kosloff

Tanning beds may be addictive, according to a study conducted by researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and published in Addiction Biology. How addictive? As addictive as drugs or alcohol, according to the researchers, who examined brain activity and blood flow in the brains of tanners.

The study

Before tanning, participants were administered a compound that let researchers measure blood flow during the session. According to the results, the brain activity and blood flow the researchers tracked were similar to those found in people addicted to alcohol or drugs.

In other words, tanning might be triggering the reward-and-reinforcement cycle that entraps addicts. So even though habitual tanners know about the health risks associated with tanning, they might have difficulty quitting.

Tanning myths

Those who are addicted to tanning might have a dangerous habit. About 132,000 cases of malignant melanoma and more than 2 million cases of other skin cancers occur annually around the world, according the World Health Organization (WHO). And most of them are caused by overexposure to harmful ultraviolet light, WHO says. Yet prevalent tanning myths allow regular tanning bed users to explain their habit.

For example, some may assume that short stints in tanning beds are safer than a day in the sun. Yet the longer wavelength ultraviolet A waves primarily used in tanning beds penetrate more deeply into the skin and, therefore, are just as likely to cause cancer, according to WHO.

Some also use tanning beds to get the recommended amount of vitamin D. Yet, according to WHO, incidental exposure to the sun along with dietary supplements should provide enough vitamin D. Those who live in polar regions (which get little sun at certain times of the year) should supplement their vitamin D needs with dietary changes before risking regular tanning bed use, according to WHO.

Some may use tanning beds a few times before heading on vacation, assuming that a "base tan" will help protect them from sunburn. That assumption is false, according to WHO, because the rays you soak up from a tanning bed aren't the same as those you'll encounter on the beach. In fact, that base tan is the equivalent of using sunscreen with an SPF of just 2 to 3.