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Tanning Beds: Why is Science Saying They're Addictive? What are Their Health Benefits and Risks?

Tanning in the United States is a $2-billion industry, bringing in more than 1 million indoor tanners every day. What has caused tanning rates to surge by 300 percent between the 1980s and 1990s, even though concerns over skin cancer have also been on the rise?

Some Americans may be addicted to tanning -- to the point where they feel withdrawal symptoms if they go too long without it.

Tanners, as it turns out, may be going to the tanning salon for more than just a bronze glow. Tanning beds, along with their potential risks, also offer some health benefits -- and they may also produce a drug-like high.

Getting Hooked on Tanning

It's possible to get "hooked" on tanning much like it is possible to get hooked on a drug, researchers say. A new study has lent credence to a 2004 study, which found that when tanners used two tanning beds (one with real ultraviolet (UV) light and one without), they felt happier after the UV light.

"A more relaxed and less tense mood was reported after UV exposure compared to after non-UV exposure," said Dr. Steven Feldman, a dermatologist at Wake Forest University. "We believe these relaxing and reinforcing effects contribute to tanning behavior and may help explain why people choose to tan despite the risks."

The new study, conducted by Dr. Mandeep Kaur of Wake Forest University (who was also involved in the 2004 study), compared eight frequent tanners (who went tanning eight to 15 times a month) with infrequent tanners (tanning once a month or less).

Half of each group was given opiate-blocking drugs, which blocked endorphins (the "feel-good" brain chemicals) from producing their pleasurable effects. The frequent tanners said they got less enjoyment when taking the drugs, which suggests the pleasant feeling played a role in their desire to tan.

Interestingly, half the frequent tanners also experienced withdrawal-type symptoms, including nausea and jitteriness, when the pleasant feeling was blocked.

Dr. Feldman explained: "Frequent tanning may be driven in part by a mild dependence on opioids, most likely endorphins. The nausea and jitteriness ... are consistent with symptoms of mild opiate withdrawal."

The Health Benefits of Tanning

Relaxation and better mood aside, tanning does offer some other health benefits that are often overlooked by the mainstream public (but not by frequent tanners, it turns out).

Most notably, tanning gives the body a chance to produce vitamin D, a nutrient that has come out as a major player in fighting everything from cancer to heart disease to depression, and which many Americans may not be getting enough of.

"Instead of tanning just for cosmetic reasons, an increasing number of regular tanning bed users have learned that regular, responsible and moderate exposure to UV light -- from natural or artificial sources -- is important to well-being, natural vitamin D production and disease prevention," said tanning technology researcher Michael Stepp, who is CEO of Wolff System Technology (a manufacturer of sunlamps for tanning beds).

In circumstances when a person is unable to get out into natural sunlight, either because of climate or a disability, some experts say tanning beds may offer a suitable solution to getting adequate amounts of vitamin D.

Whether from sunlight or a tanning bed, overexposure to UV light can cause wrinkling and loss of elasticity in the skin.

According to a Wolff study, which surveyed 300 men and women who use commercial indoor tanning beds, "Nearly 55 percent believe indoor tanning is a responsible way to protect the skin from overexposure by the sun. These regular tanners recognize that there is a growing body of validated medical research pointing to the benefits of UV-generated Vitamin D -- as well as the serious medical and health risks of chronic sun-deprivation vitamin D deficiencies."

Tanning Poses Risks, Too

Before heading out to one of the nation's nearly 20,000 tanning salons, you should be aware that tanning does pose some risks.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to UV light, either from the sun or a tanning bed, is a risk factor for skin cancer. Short-wavelength UVB light has been found to be carcinogenic in animals, and longer wavelength UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply and is used in tanning beds, may also contribute to cancer.

Further, a study in Norway and Sweden found that women who regularly used tanning beds had a greater risk of malignant melanoma.

Tanning, either from tanning beds or the sun, can also damage the skin structurally. In the short-term, this can lead to burning, fragility and scarring. In the long-term, overexposure to UV can result in photoageing, which occurs when collagen in the skin is broken down by UV. The end result is wrinkling and a loss of elasticity.

Eye problems, including cataracts, pterygium (a white-colored growth over the cornea) and inflammation of the eye can also occur from UV exposure. Excessive exposure may also suppress the immune system, potentially leaving a person at risk from infectious diseases.

Avid tanners will defend the benefits of tanning just as intensely as opponents will refute them. As the debate over tanning ... and its stronghold over many Americans ... continues, it's up to you to make your own final informed decision about this activity.

Recommended Reading

LISTEN UP! Exposure to Loud Noise May Cause Tumor & Other Health Risks

27 "Never Events": They're Not Supposed to Happen, but They Often Do


You Can Get Hooked on Tanning Because it Gets You High

Frequent Tanners May be Lured by the "Feel-Good" Effects of UV Light

Research Study Profiles Indoor Tanners

WHO: Sunbeds, Tanning and UV Exposure

Indoor Tanning Dangers

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