Is it possible to be addicted to tanning?

Smoking isn’t the only addiction that can cause cancer and premature aging. Tanning addiction is not only real, it’s also dangerous

Is it possible to be addicted to tanning?

It controls you. Your life revolves around it. You do it even after you’ve promised yourself you wouldn’t. You do it even though you know it’s hurting you. You want to stop, but you feel powerless to do so.

Think we’re talking about crystal meth? Crack cocaine? Would you believe, ultraviolet light? Scientists are proving that people can indeed get hooked on tanning.

The reluctant poster child for ‘just say no’ is Patricia Krentcil, the now-infamous ‘tanorexic’ mom accused earlier this year of bringing her young child into a tanning booth with her. Many of us were shocked by photos of the New Jersey woman’s lined, leathery, unnaturally brown face, with bloggers comparing her skin to Chanel handbags and tree bark.

But if anything positive has come out of the Krentcil case, it’s a growing realization that tanning addiction is real and dangerous.

Last year, a study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center demonstrated that using tanning beds causes the reward centres of people’s brains to light up. The pattern, researchers say, mimics drug and alcohol dependence.

‘There’s strong evidence now for a physiologic addiction,’ notes Dr. Steve Feldman, a dermatologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We know, for instance, that when cultured human skin cells are exposed to ultraviolet light, they release endorphins. This finding may explain why it feels relaxing and euphoric when the sun bakes your skin at the beach.

And it led Feldman to conduct his own study, using two tanning beds that appeared identical ‘ except that one blocked UV light and the other didn’t. When both beds were tried out by unsuspecting folks who tan frequently, they claimed they felt better in the one that was flooding them with UV radiation.

If these physical effects aren’t enough to seduce you, there’s also the positive reinforcement of a darkened appearance. ‘If you have a society that thinks looking tanned is going to get you a date on Saturday, then it’s going to be very hard to break that addiction,’ Dr. Feldman points out.

All these factors might explain why the tanning salon industry is booming despite a rising awareness of the risks. People under 30 who tan indoors just ten times a year are eight times more likely to develop melanoma, a deadly skin cancer that kills over 900 Canadians annually. Tanning beds can also lead to other health problems like non-melanoma skin cancers, cataracts and prematurely aged skin.

But, like other kinds of addiction, tanning can tempt you even when you know it can kill you. ‘One of my colleagues reported cutting a melanoma out of a teenager, and then going with his wife to her hair salon.’ says Dr. Feldman. ‘Out from the back, where they keep the tanning beds, came the teenager ‘ with her stitches still in!’

And just like with other addictions, you can experience withdrawal. When Feldman tried out endorphin blockers on his test subjects, he guessed they wouldn’t sense any difference between the two rigged tanning beds. He guessed right ‘ but was surprised to see them suffer from symptoms like nausea, sweating and anxiety.

Convinced you should kick the habit? A therapist with experience in substance abuse may be able to help you. Or you can try cutting back your tanning sessions gradually, until you’re able to give them up altogether. When you’re outdoors, apply sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and use clothing, hats and shade to shield yourself from the sun.

You may not be able to undo all the damage of tanning, but you’ll better your odds of staying in the pink. ‘The skin is a plastic organ,’ says Dr. Feldman. ‘It can tend to recover. Protecting yourself from further UV exposure would be a very straightforward way to begin the process of helping the skin heal.’

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