Many of us have known women (and men) who seem addicted to tanning—no matter how glaring the health risks, you’ll still find them hitting the tanning beds. Is it just a desire for that bronze (or orange) glow that gets ‘em? Or is there something about the process of tanning itself that keeps folks coming back?
New research leans toward the latter, showing that tanning bed users exhibit brain changes during a tanning session that mirror those seen in drug addicts. “Using tanning beds has rewarding effects in the brain so people may feel compelled to persist … even though it’s bad for them,” said Dr. Bryon Adinoff, a psychiatry professor and author of the tanning study, published in the journal Addiction Biology.
Tanning bed usage has continued to grow in recent years, despite the fact that it’s one of the biggest risk factors for developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Tanning is especially dangerous for the young—according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, those under 30 using a tanning bed just 10 times a year increased their risk of developing malignant melanoma eightfold.
In Adinoff’s study, individuals were directed to either a regular tanning bed (one that exposed them to ultraviolet light) or a sham tanning bed in which the light was filtered to block UV rays. In the ‘real’ tanning bed, the subjects’ brains showed activation in the regions associated with pleasure-seeking and reward; no such activity was evident in those using the fake beds.
But Time writer Maia Szalavitz says we shouldn’t make too much of these findings. Many things that people enjoy doing cause increased activity in the pleasure and reward portions of the brain—this doesn’t mean we’re ‘addicted’ to all of these things.
… saying that tanning is “addictive” because the reward areas of people’s brains light up in response to UV light is a little like saying we like sugar because it tastes sweet. It’s a tautology. Anything that you perceive as enjoyable will activate the pleasure regions regions: if it didn’t, it couldn’t be experienced as pleasant.
The subjects in Adinoff’s study were all frequent tanning-bed users, so obviously there is some aspect of tanning that they enjoy. Is this related to the UV rays themselves? This research points to yes, since UV-filtered light didn’t lead to the same brain responses. But that still doesn’t meant the UV rays are addictive. As Szalavitz explains: “Simply demonstrating that a person’s reward areas light up doesn’t show that she’s an addict”:
Addiction is much more complicated. We do a disservice both to the understanding of the brain and to our decisions regarding drug treatment and policy when we think about it so simplistically. Tanning may become an addiction for some people — but research like this can’t prove it.