April 19, 2010 -- Indoor tanning can be addictive, and people who are hooked on tanning beds may also be prone to anxiety and substance abuse problems, according to a new study in the Archives of Dermatology.
Despite the well-publicized risks of skin cancer, indoor tanning is on the rise among adolescents and young adults. Many people still feel that they look better when they are tan and report that the act of tanning is relaxing. The industry is booming, despite federal efforts aimed at regulating and taxing indoor tanning.
In the new study of 421 students from a large Northeastern university, 229 students had tanned in indoor salons. Of these, 160 met criteria for indoor tanning addiction. In general, indoor tanning addicts tanned more frequently than their non-addicted counterparts. The college students who were addicted to indoor tanning were also more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and/or greater use of alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, than their peers who were not addicted to indoor tanning.
“This study provides further support for the notion that tanning may be conceptualized as an addictive behavior for a subgroup of individuals who tan indoors,” conclude study authors Catherine E. Mosher, PhD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Sharon Danoff-Burg, PhD, of the University at Albany in New York.
If the link between anxiety, substance abuse, and indoor tanning addiction is confirmed by future studies, “treating an underlying mood disorder may be a necessary step in reducing skin cancer risk among those who frequently tan indoors,” they write.
Indoor Tanning "Feels Good"
Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from indoor tanning beds and the sun promotes the release of endorphins, which are our brain’s natural “feel-good” chemicals.
“You just feel good afterward,” says Darrell S. Rigel, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “Tanning is an addiction, just like smoking, and there is a cancer outcome just like there is with smoking.”
“If you are feeling stressed and anxious, you may feel better after tanning, but there are much healthier ways to reduce anxiety,” says Carolyn J. Heckman, PhD, a psychologist in the cancer prevention and control program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “It is possible that if we treat the underlying anxiety, depression, substance abuse or body image issues, we would reduce indoor tanning and the health risks associated with indoor tanning."
John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association in Washington, D.C., says labeling something as an addictive behavior is becoming something of a trend. “It is really popular to label a group or activity as an addiction such as Internet addiction, pornography addiction, or video game addiction, and this is a form of condemnation by labeling and I am not sure it is scientifically sound,” he says.
Although too much of a good thing is always a possibility, Overstreet does not see indoor tanning as an addiction.