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Hurts So Good: Why You Don't Care If Tanning Is Bad For You

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I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA, minutes from the beach. Nice afternoons and weekends were spent in the sun working on a tan. It was the 1980s and there was little public talk about the relationship between tanning and skin cancer. If there was, it’s not likely we would have cared.

It turns out there might have been something other than teenage vanity at play: emerging research increasingly points to the potential addictive properties of ultraviolet rays. A study of indoor tanners in the June issue of Clinical Experimental Dermatology found that, using a modified version of the CAGE addiction questionnaire, 41 percent could be considered addicted, and another 33 percent had problematic behavior. Similar results were reported in a study in theArchives of Dermatology in April.

Current research, although preliminary, seems to indicate a relationship between melatonin stimulating hormone (MSH) that helps you turn a golden brown and endorphin production, says James Spencer, MD, a dermatologist in Tampa, FL, and spokesperson on the dangers of indoor tanning for the American Academy of Dermatology. Essentially, UV rays increase brain chemicals that make you feel good.

The more rays, the greater the risk. That could make indoor tanning of particular concern, says Robin Hornung, MD, MPH, of the Everett (WA) Clinic. A study she did found tanning beds routinely gave off four times the UVA rays and twice the UVB rays as the noonday sun in the Washington, DC area.

If people tan in part because of addiction, it will be even harder to get an anti-tanning message across to patients, Spencer says. “We’re going to have to reach out to our mental health colleagues for guidance on how to approach patients.” Like smoking cessation, any reduction in the unhealthy behavior is a step in the right direction, he adds. Parents, teachers, and doctors can make a start by using some of the same tools used by those who successfully counsel smokers to quit: encourage tanners to think about making a change, to set a date certain for doing so, and then use whatever support they need to ensure they keep to their goals.


The American Academy of Dermatology has a lot of information on the dangers of sun exposure, as well as data on the increase in the numbers of melanomas among younger people that they believe is a result of too much indoor tanning and other sun worship without sun protection.  You can also find a dermatologist on the website. For information on sun protection, including facts about sunscreen, check out this EPA document.

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