Addiction to Tanning Beds: Who Knew This Was Risky?


Addiction to tanning beds by Mary Lee Peters, MDTanning beds are a popular way of keeping that sun kissed look as cold weather sets in. They are particularly welcomed in cloudy Seattle and cold northern climes. It feels good to get warm light exposure, so good in fact that it is addicting. Data shows that the ultra violet light in electric tanning causes release of endorphins. Endorphins stimulate our brain’s pleasure centers. As endorphin levels decrease, the addictive personality looks for ways to increase the pleasurable sensation. Chronic users are drawn in by more than bronzing of the skin. There is also the endorphin release. Tanning beds are used by thirty million people according to the tanning bed industry. That is roughly 10% of the US  population each year.

Not all addictions are bad, but this one is believed to be related to the 30% rise in the rate of melanomas with the biggest increase among women 15-39 years old. Melanoma is a skin cancer that arises in dark colored skin growths. It can be cured if caught early, but results in a devastating course if spread has occurred. The risk of death from advanced disease remains high. Researchers estimate that the increase in incidence of melanoma is related to tanning bed use.

The New England Journal (NEJM 363:10,p901)  has a good description of how the same mechanism that causes your skin to tan is resposible for DNA damage that sets the stage for skin cancer development. It is theorized that tanning may be the body’s attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of radiation. When DNA is damaged the skin is programed to release melanin, a brown pigment that can help filter the sun’s harmful rays. Tanning cannot occur without DNA damage. If your body does not repair that damage, you may be subjecting yourself to a cancerous change.

There are public health advocates that believe that regulation or even banning of tanning beds might be an opportunity for public safety. Multiple European countries have started to enact restrictions on tanning beds. Whether or not that occurs as a legislative agenda in the US, you can protect yourself by selecting a quality spray tanner and avoiding unnecessary exposure to ultra violet radiation.

So if you like the look of that outdoor ruddy complexion head for the cosmetic counter instead of the tanning parlor and get your endorphins with a brisk work out.

Category: Beauty, Skin Care

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