I’ve been smoking for the last ten years, so I know what addictions are like. They keep you from enjoying activities without satisfying your habit, and make life difficult in general. But what if I told you that smoking and drugs and caffeine weren’t the only addictions? What if I told you that the sun can be addictive?
Actually, it isn’t the sun that might be addictive, but the body’s natural response to tanning. This doesn’t mean that every time you go outside to play with your kids, you’re feeding an unhealthy tanning addiction, but people who tan several times each month might be at risk.
When you lay out in the sun, or under a tanning bed, your skin releases natural endorphins, much like the ones experienced during exercise. You receive even more endorphins when playing on the beach on a sunny day, or any other activity that gives you direct sun exposure. Studies show that the more people tan, the more they want to tan, which can lead to an unhealthy addiction.
When endorphines are released, people experience a type of natural “high”. They feel better about themselves, they have more energy and they are generally happy, regardless of negative aspects of their lives. This is why exercise is prescribed as a cure for depression; when you exercise, endorphines are released, and you become more up-beat. When you tan, you achieve a similar high, which can lead to an unconscious desire to tan more frequently.
Recently, a group of medical researchers performed a study on groups of people who tan at least eight times per month. The tanners were given 50-gram doses of naltrexone, which is a drug that blocks the substance released while tanning. The people who received the naltrexone experienced symptoms much like withdrawal – fatigue, nausea, dizziness and irritability. Many experienced shaking and vomiting as well.
A control group for the study – a group of infrequent tanners – were given the same doses of naltrexone, but experienced no withdrawal symptoms. This leads medical researchers to believe that people who tan frequently – under the sun or in a tanning bed – are actually physically addicted to the activity.
In another study, researchers polled people who tan at beaches every day, and more than half met the psychological criteria for substance abuse. None admitted to taking drugs, steroids or to smoking, but they all had symptoms and behaviors of those who abuse substance. From that poll, it became clear that tanning could, in fact, be a substance worth abusing.
This research compounds problems already associated with UV light. It is widely accepted that tanning under UV light can lead to skin cancer and other problems, which is why it is not recommended. But if UV light, which helps the skin to produce endorphins, can also be addictive, then the problems are even more complicated than once thought. In order to test this theory, another test was performed.
Subjects were placed under two different tanning beds: one with UV light, the other without. Half of the subjects were given doses of naltrexone, while the other half received a harmless placebo.
The subjects who admitted to frequent tanning greatly preferred the tanning bed with UV light, though that preference was slightly reduced in the subjects who took naltrexone. The infrequent tanners expressed a slight preference for the UV light tanning bed, and were nominally affected by doses of naltrexone.
Four of the frequent tanners suffered withdrawal symptoms when under the non-UV light tanning bed.
It is true that UV light has certain advantages, such as the production of vitimin D and the psychological benefits of being out in the sun. However, moderation is advised.
So what if you suspect that you’re a tanning addict? The following tips will greatly reduce your proclivity toward a tanning addiction:
1. Avoid tanning beds. Even though they are supposed to be safe, they can still add to a tanning addiction, and may cause other, nonrelated health risks.
2. Stay out of the sun between noon and four o’clock in the afternoon, which is the “heat of the day”. This is the time during which the sun can do the most damage to your skin. If you plan to be out, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater.
3. Try not to actively tan. Outdoor activities are one thing, but laying outside for hours is quite another. If you want to be in the sun, try swimming or playing beach volleyball or surfing. This will limit direct sunlight, but will still give you the tan you desire.
4. Consider dermatologically tested sunless tanning. These products can give you the effect you want, without serious risks to yourself.
5. Avoid tanning more than five times each month. Studies found that addictions rarely occur in tanners who infrequently lay out or visit tanning beds.