Tanners Anonymous

Some people might be addicted to UV light.

July 26, 2006
Getting her fix?
Getting her fix?

Mallory Cunard is wearing a petite blue paisley bikini and no sunscreen. She has been lounging on her rainbow patterned beach chair by the 11th street boardwalk entrance to Belmar Beach, New Jersey, since 2pm. She is angled toward the sun and a few feet away from a flock of children with plastic buckets and groups of young adults with stereos.

“I think it’s a habit that’s hard to break,” the 20-year-old says of tanning.

She came alone, and when she’s done tanning, she says that she won’t just look better, she’ll feel better—that’s what keeps her coming back despite her family’s advice.

To many people, the bronzy glow of a sun-kissed face represents relaxation, fitness, and attractiveness—but some research suggests it may also be a sign of a dangerous addiction.

Steven Feldman, a professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, became interested in the idea of tanning addiction after having difficulty convincing some of his patients to stay out of the sun. In a study appearing in 2004, he and his colleagues showed that ultraviolet light (UVL) results in greater relaxation and lower tension in tanners.

In a follow-up study, published in the April issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, some of the same Wake Forest researchers observed that tanners might experience withdrawal symptoms typical of addiction.

The researchers exposed eight frequent tanners and eight infrequent tanners to two tanning beds. One bed emitted UV light, but the other bed did not. Some tanners were also given naltroxene—a drug which blocks feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, which are made by the body. As the tanners took higher doses of naltroxene, half of the frequent tanners experienced withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and jitteriness.

This withdrawal may have occurred because the frequent tanners couldn’t feel the positive effects of the endorphins that they had grown dependent on, according to the authors. In contrast, the infrequent tanners who took the drug never experienced withdrawal symptoms.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if [UVL] releases feel-good factors,” said Antony R. Young, a professor of experimental photobiology at St. John’s Institute of Dermatology in England, who was not involved in the study.

Other research has examined the concept of tanning addiction from a psychological standpoint. Last year, a study found that some beachgoers, who were given psychological questionnaires while sunning themselves, showed a dependence on tanning.

“What we were thinking was that the behavior was controlling the person, not the person controlling the behavior, because some of these people were just getting up in the morning to tan. It was taking over their lives,” said Richard Wagner Jr., lead author of the study and the deputy chairman of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Those who “chronically and repetitively expose themselves to UVL to tan may have a novel type of UVL substance-related disorder,” wrote the authors. But the findings may not be applicable to the entire population, or even to all tanners, Wagner added.

Although studies like these suggest that frequent tanning might be a sign of UVL addiction, some addiction experts say the evidence is still too slim to call frequent tanners addicts.

Studies using larger populations―including non-beachgoers and non-tanners, as well as people with other substance-related disorders―would help researchers to better examine the association between UVL and addiction, according to Eugene A. Kiyatkin, a senior research fellow with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

For example, the recent Wake Forrest study only included a small sample of tanners. “While it may look exciting, the study compares only two groups of people: a normal group and an ‘unusual’ group,” Kiyatkin wrote in an e-mail.

It is possible that the group of frequent tanners had other addictions or psychological problems, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, that may have caused them to respond differently than the average person to the drug used in the study, according to Kiyatkin.

Stronger evidence linking tanning to UVL addiction could also come from studies that directly measure a person’s endorphins after tanning. Research done in the 1980s found increased levels of endorphins following UVL exposure, but recent studies have not confirmed those results.

And there are other reasons why people go tanning, according to Wagner of the University of Texas. For example, Mallory says one of her main motivations is how much clearer her skin is when she tans regularly.

Regardless of whether or not tanning is proven to be addictive, doctors agree that the goal is to make people aware of the health risks associated with UV light exposure. In 2000, the National Toxicology Program listed exposure to sunlamps and sun beds, as well as solar radiation, as known human carcinogens in their “Report on Carcinogens.”

But tanning in salons and at home have never been more popular. The Indoor Tanning Association now estimates a 28 million customer base—about 10 percent of the total US population.

It is clear to many dermatologists that people like Mallory have been slow to heed warnings of the health risks associated with outdoor and indoor tanning.

“You get good results from tanning right away when you’re young,” says Mallory, adding that the consequences “don’t show up until later.”

Whether it is because of vanity, a sense of relaxation, or an addiction, Mallory will continue to tan. “I know it’s bad for me,” she says, “but I still do it. It’s like anything else people tell you not to do but you just don’t stop.”

About the Author

Sabina Borza

Sabina Borza is a lover of life, culture, and science. After flirting with medicine, veterinary medicine, and primatology, she realized she was better suited to dabble in many fields as a writer rather than devote herself to one academic pursuit. She holds a biology degree from Clark University, but will probably return to school every couple of years for the rest of her life.



Dr. Spektor of LIJ Medical Center, NY says:

Great article! I would be curious to know whether the writer’s own perspective on tanning have changed as a result of her extensive research on this topic.

RockMonkey says:

Nice article. Dr. Spektor raises an interesting question. I’d like to know the writer’s response as well.

Sabina says:

I love spending time outdoors, but I don’t always protect my skin like I should. Since researching and writing this article, I have tried to be more aware of the health risks I often ignored because I didn’t have time to smother on the sunscreen or sit in the shade. Many of the dermatologists I spoke with told me that some UVL exposure is healthy and they don’t want to see people hiding indoors. Instead, they said the key is to be aware of health risks and realize that some people refuse to stop tanning even after they’ve had several melanomas removed!
I am interested to see what future studies will find. Who knows if dermatologists and addiction experts will ever agree on this one…

Sofia says:

We always here about skin cancer and why the skin is bad but it was interesting to read about endorphins and feeling good from tanning. I must admit, I am one of those who believes some sun makes a person look healthier and happier, but not when they overdo it!

Ron Yuswack says:

As one of your former mentors, I must warn you that all of this information concerning the dangers of excessive exposure to uv rays are indeed real and very serious. As a teenager and young adult I was obsessed with being tan all year round. And this was in the days when there weren’t tanning salons. So I purchased a number of tanning lights for the home, and continued to keep my golden tan year round. It wasn’t until many years later that I developed my first case of basal cell carcinoma in the corner of my eye lid. Then a number of years after that, the basal cell appeared on my chest. Now I visit my dermatologist once a year for a full body check to insure that there are no further problems due to my vanity as a young man. Trust me, the danger is very real. I am just grateful that the skin cancer that I have developed thus far was not a form of melanoma or any of the other more serious varieties.
Your article is an excellent lesson for all of us, Sabina. I am very proud of you !!!!!

It is a very nice beginning towards a professional research worker.
All my congratulations, and best wishes for the future.

Mark D. says:

Wow! I barely made it passed the spammer security question. 1+2=????????
Was a study really necessary for this………take a look at a beach one of these days.

Farrah says:

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, but isn’t it obvious that tanning would release endorphins? Just by sitting on the beach with my clothes on, knowing I don’t have to be at work and I can relax is reason enough to be happy. I don’t even have to tan and I like it :) But of course I prefer being brown.

Stephen Bozer says:

Hey Sabina – great article on tanning. The UV range of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite useful for Analytical Chemistry, but very damaging to the C-G pairing of nucleic acids…interesting how mammals evolved to deal with this eh?

Please e-mail me so we can catch up (

Jessica Rachel Gelman says:

Sabina, this article is useful in the field of medicine as you know I’m sure. And the writing styl appeal to a young demographic that is itself in danger of the threat of UV ray’s harmful effects, especially skin cancer. That goes for all the kids who tan themselves by the California beaches along the coast on summer days like these. Who wants skin cancer by the time they reach 30 ? Really well-written, I’ll bet you’re a damn good writer. I’m hoping to be either a journalist or magazine writer but I write fiction which hasn’t sold yet. Keep in touch with like-minded people! Email me at

Dragos says:

Many people must read about that subject. This is not a joke ! The sun is more powerful year after year because of us ! We, the people of this planet have distroyed, step by step, the ozone protection. I think, the situationFor that reason, this information concerning the dangers of excessive exposure to uv rays are very serious. The sun is good for life, but not in exces.
Best wishes and congratulations !

Darius says:


—————— – all about privacy in the Internet

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