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Are You a Tanning Bed Junkie?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Is using a tanning bed your guilty pleasure, despite the fact that you know doing so dramatically increases your risk of developing melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer? Or do you use a tanning bed because you just feel better after a tanning session than you did before it?

If so, it’s possible you’re a tanning bed junkie, according to a pilot study by researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Dr. Byron Adinoff, a psychiatry professor, and senior author of the study says people with a tanning bed addiction exhibit similar brain activity to people addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“Using tanning beds has rewarding effects in the brain so people may feel compelled to persist in the behavior even though they know it’s bad for them,” he says.

About 120,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. People younger than 30 who use a tanning bed 10 times a year have eight times the risk of developing malignant melanoma skin cancer. While the public knowledge of these dangers has grown over recent years, the Foundation reports, so has the regular use of tanning beds, a $5 billion industry.

If Dr. Adinoff and his colleagues are right, UV rays are actually activating “reward” switches in the brain that significantly increases blood flow in areas of the brain implicated in addiction.

In the pilot study, regular sunbed users were asked to participate in two ten –minute sessions each. Their feelings about tanning were recorded prior and after each experience. During one session each, all the tanners weren’t really tanning. They were instead, unknowingly exposed to filtered light. The tanning bed users' brains were measured for blood flow during each session.

According to the study, published early online in Addiction Biology brains of the binge tanners exposed to the filtered light could distinguish between the two light sources as evidenced by regional cerebral blood flow. Brain images show during the regular tanning sessions key areas of the brain implicated in addiction lighted up, as compared to the filtered light sessions, where the key brain areas showed far less activity signaling. At least on a cerebral level, they knew the difference between light sources, and the real one made them feel better.

This may lend some credence as to why some binge tanners say they feel they can’t stop tanning altogether, or even cut back on the number of tanning sessions they have. However, critics of the study say just because a person enjoys something doesn’t mean they necessarily are addicted.

Dr. Adinoff answers the study's critics this way: “If it’s rewarding, then could it also be addictive?’ It’s an important question in the field.”

Lynette Summerill, an award-winning writer and scuba enthusiast lives in San Diego, CA. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.


Addiction Biology. Activation of the mesostriatal reward pathway with exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) vs. sham UVR in frequent tanners: a pilot study. C. Harrington, T.C. Beswick, M. Graves, H.T. Jacobe, T.S. Harris, S. Kourosh, M.D. Devous, Sr., B. Adinoff. Article first published online 11 Apr 2011.
Abstract accessible online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1369-1600.2010.00312.x/abstract

The Skin Cancer Foundation. Indoors Tanning: Skin Cancer Facts. Accessed online:

Southwestern Medical Center. New Release: Tanning bed users exhibit brain changes and behavior similar to addicts, UT Southwestern researchers find.10 Aug. 2011. LaKisha Ladson. Accessed online: http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/utsw/cda/dept353744/files/649552.html

Reviewed August 16, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

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