WebMD Medical News
Laura J. Martin, MD
April 19, 2010 -- Indoor tanning can be addictive, and people who are hooked
on 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 the
rise among adolescents and young adults. Many people still feel that they look
better when they are tan and report that the act of tanning is relaxing. The
industry is booming, despite federal efforts aimed at regulating and taxing
In the new study of 421 students from a large Northeastern university, 229
students had tanned in indoor salons. Of these, 160 met criteria for indoor
tanning addiction. In general, indoor tanning addicts tanned more frequently
than their non-addicted counterparts. The college students who were addicted to
indoor tanning were also more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and/or greater
use of alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, than their peers who were not
addicted to indoor tanning.
“This study provides further support for the notion that tanning may be
conceptualized as an addictive behavior for a subgroup of individuals who tan
indoors,” conclude study authors Catherine E. Mosher, PhD, of Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Sharon Danoff-Burg, PhD, of
the University at Albany in New York.
If the link between anxiety, substance abuse, and indoor tanning addiction
is confirmed by future studies, “treating an underlying mood disorder may be a
necessary step in reducing skin cancer risk among those who frequently tan
indoors,” they write.
Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from indoor tanning beds and the sun
promotes the release of endorphins, which are our brain’s natural “feel-good”
“You just feel good afterward,” says Darrell S. Rigel, MD, a clinical
professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “Tanning is an
addiction, just like smoking, and there is a cancer outcome just like there is
“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 Chase
Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “It is possible that if we treat the
underlying anxiety, depression, substance abuse or body image issues, we would
reduce indoor tanning and the health risks associated with indoor tanning."
John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association in
Washington, D.C., says labeling something as an addictive behavior is becoming
something of a trend. “It is really popular to label a group or activity as an
addiction such as Internet addiction, pornography addiction, or video game
addiction, and this is a form of condemnation by labeling and I am not sure it
is scientifically sound,” he says.
Although too much of a good thing is always a possibility, Overstreet does
not see indoor tanning as an addiction.
“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 a
decade ago,” Rigel says.
“Indoor tanning is not safer than sunbathing and may even be more
dangerous,” Heckman says. Besides increasing risk of skin cancer, tanning also
promotes wrinkles and age spots, she says.
“If you want to look tan, use sunless tanners,” she says.
The new study may provide another blow to the indoor tanning industry. An
advisory panel to the FDA recently met to discuss imposing new regulations on
indoor tanning. The panel recommended banning the use of tanning beds among
children and teens or requiring strict parental consent, as well as potentially
banning the use of indoor tanning by people with extremely pale skin. In
addition, the panel suggested that indoor tanning devices be re-classified so
that they have stricter warning labels and are more firmly regulated to limit
the levels of radiation the devices emit.
There is also a 10% tax on indoor tanning services included in the new
health care reform bill. A tax won’t make a dent in an addict’s habit, Rigel
says. 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 is
wonderful,” he says.
SOURCES:Mosher, C. and Danoff-Burg, S. Archives of Dermatology, 2010; vol
146: pp 412-417.Carolyn J. Heckman, PhD, psychologist, cancer prevention and control
program, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia.Darrell S. Rigel, MD, clinical professor, dermatology, New
York University Medical Center, New York.John Overstreet, executive director, Indoor Tanning Association, Washington,
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