By Shelagh McNally for Wounds1
Summer is coming and it’s time to expose those pale legs. But the fear of pasty-colored skin is turning some of us into addicts. Researchers in both Britain and the United States have been following an alarming trend of people developing unhealthy obsessions about bronzed skin. What starts off as a quest for a bit of color turns into a full-blown addiction that has both men and women baking themselves out in the sun or in tanning salons while ignoring the risks of skin cancer.
| Are you a suntanning addict? Take the following short quiz based on the Galveston Sun addiction survey:|
Do you try to cut down on the time you spend in the sun, but find yourself still suntanning?
Do you think you need to spend more and more time in the sun to maintain your perfect tan?
Do you ever feel guilty that you are in the sun too much?
Do you find yourself ignoring warnings from your doctor about skin cancer and putting your tanning first?
Do you feel irritable, angry or ill at ease if you miss a scheduled suntanning?
Addiction to the sun has been dubbed “tanorexia,” and doctors are looking at the possibility that some people get hooked on sunbathing in the same way they get strung out on gambling, drugs or alcohol.
When skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, endorphins are released into the body producing powerful feelings of well-being and relaxation. Sun addicts get dependent on the emotional high from the endorphins. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, frequent tanners actually exhibit the same symptoms as drug addicts when denied their daily dose of sunshine.
The study, conducted at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, measured reactions between eight hard-core tanners (up to 15 times per month) and eight infrequent sunbathers. Each group started off with five milligrams of naltrexone, a drug which blocks the effects of endorphins. The dose was gradually increased and by 15 milligrams, four of the frequent tanners got telltale withdrawal symptoms. Eventually all the frequent tanners became ill.
“In the beginning, we gave standard 50-milligram doses of naltrexone to frequent tanners,” says principal researcher Mandeep Kaur, MD, a dermatologist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. “All of them developed symptoms consistent with physiological withdrawal: Nausea, dizziness, and shaking. So, we had to stop that study.”
For “tanorexics,” the pull for endorphins is so strong that warnings about skin cancer fall on deaf (but tanned) ears. “This could explain why educational interventions haven’t been more successful,” said Richard Wagner, M.D., of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and senior author of a study published in the August 2005 Archives of Dermatology. Dr Wagner and his team evaluated 145 beach-goers using two questionnaires adapted from those used to screen for alcoholism and drug dependency. According to one standard, more than 26 percent of those polled showed signs of being addicted to tanning but by the second measure, more than 53 percent qualified as being addicted to ultraviolet light.
While getting bronzed by the sun may feel good, the effects are often devastating. Skin cancer claims around 1,700 lives a year in the United States alone. “The problem with tanning is that the physiologic response of tanning is due to UV light,” Wagner warned. “UV light is a tumor-promoter. That is why dermatologists try to limit their patients’ exposure.”
One of the fastest growing groups of addicts is teenage girls, whose quest for the perfect celebrity tan is tied into feelings of self-esteem and confidence. Several high-profile cases have emerged in Great Britain where young women, all frequent visitors to tanning salons, have been diagnosed with skin cancer in their early 20s. And there appears to be an alarming connection between the age of the tanner and the level of the addiction, according to a study conducted at School of Public Health University of Minnesota, published in the April 2006 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Researchers Sarah Zeller, DeAnn Lazovich, Jean Foster and Rachel Widome surveyed 1,275 adolescents, ages 14 to 17 years visiting indoor tanning salons. The younger the girl, the stronger the dependency and 20.9 percent found it impossible to stop altogether. The British Medical Association and Cancer Research UK has called for a ban on teenagers under 16 using tanning salons. Moderation is the key said a spokesperson for the organization.
So, enjoy your summer. Just don’t get hooked on that tan.