April 19, 2010 — Indoor tanning can be addictive, and people who are hookedon tanning beds may also be prone to anxiety and substance abuse problems,according to a new study in the Archives of Dermatology.
Despite the well-publicized risks of skin cancer, indoor tanning is on therise among adolescents and young adults. Many people still feel that they lookbetter when they are tan and report that the act of tanning is relaxing. Theindustry is booming, despite federal efforts aimed at regulating and taxingindoor tanning.
In the new study of 421 students from a large Northeastern university, 229students had tanned in indoor salons. Of these, 160 met criteria for indoortanning addiction. In general, indoor tanning addicts tanned more frequentlythan their non-addicted counterparts. The college students who were addicted toindoor tanning were also more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and/or greateruse of alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, than their peers who were notaddicted to indoor tanning.
“This study provides further support for the notion that tanning may beconceptualized as an addictive behavior for a subgroup of individuals who tanindoors,” conclude study authors Catherine E. Mosher, PhD, of MemorialSloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Sharon Danoff-Burg, PhD, ofthe University at Albany in New York.
If the link between anxiety, substance abuse, and indoor tanning addictionis confirmed by future studies, “treating an underlying mood disorder may be anecessary step in reducing skin cancer risk among those who frequently tanindoors,” they write.
Indoor Tanning “Feels Good”
Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from indoor tanning beds and the sunpromotes the release of endorphins, which are our brain’s natural “feel-good”chemicals.
“You just feel good afterward,” says Darrell S. Rigel, MD, a clinicalprofessor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “Tanning is anaddiction, just like smoking, and there is a cancer outcome just like there iswith smoking.”
“If you are feeling stressed and anxious, you may feel better after tanning,but there are much healthier ways to reduce anxiety,” says Carolyn J. Heckman,PhD, a psychologist in the cancer prevention and control program at Fox ChaseCancer Center in Philadelphia. “It is possible that if we treat theunderlying anxiety, depression, substance abuse or body image issues, we wouldreduce indoor tanning and the health risks associated with indoor tanning.”
John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association inWashington, D.C., says labeling something as an addictive behavior is becomingsomething of a trend. “It is really popular to label a group or activity as anaddiction such as Internet addiction, pornography addiction, or video gameaddiction, and this is a form of condemnation by labeling and I am not sure itis scientifically sound,” he says.
Although too much of a good thing is always a possibility, Overstreet doesnot see indoor tanning as an addiction.
Risks of Indoor Tanning
“We are seeing women in their 20s with melanoma where the sun doesn’t shine,but where the UV rays from tanning beds do, and we would have never seen this adecade ago,” Rigel says.
“Indoor tanning is not safer than sunbathing and may even be moredangerous,” Heckman says. Besides increasing risk of skin cancer, tanning alsopromotes wrinkles and age spots, she says.
“If you want to look tan, use sunless tanners,” she says.
Indoor Tanning in the News
The new study may provide another blow to the indoor tanning industry. Anadvisory panel to the FDA recently met to discuss imposing new regulations onindoor tanning. The panel recommended banning the use of tanning beds amongchildren and teens or requiring strict parental consent, as well as potentiallybanning the use of indoor tanning by people with extremely pale skin. Inaddition, the panel suggested that indoor tanning devices be re-classified sothat they have stricter warning labels and are more firmly regulated to limitthe levels of radiation the devices emit.
There is also a 10% tax on indoor tanning services included in the newhealth care reform bill. A tax won’t make a dent in an addict’s habit, Rigelsays. A 10% tax on a $20 indoor tanning session, for example, is just $2.Still, “it can’t hurt, but we have to get people to not think that tanning iswonderful,” he says.