Can Tanning Be “Addictive”? Not So Fast

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We’ve all seen the headlines about sex, food and rock-and-roll “lighting up” the same brain regions as drugs. The latest? “Tanning Bed Users’ Brains Like Addicts’,” claims the UPI, citing a new study.

I don’t mean to pick on the authors of the research, which was just published in the journal Addiction Biology. Bryan Adinoff of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and his colleagues examined seven frequent users of tanning beds in a bed that either exposed them to ultraviolet (UV) light, which is what causes skin to tan, or to light that was filtered to block those rays.

In the “real” artificial sunlight condition — but not in the filtered light — the tanners’ brains showed activation of regions associated with pleasure and reward.

That’s a useful thing to study. It’s especially important in light of the fact that there are 120,000 cases of melanoma, an often deadly form of  skin cancer, per year in the U.S. People who spend more than 50 hours a year in tanning beds triple their risk for the disease; getting just one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence doubles melanoma risk.

Many of us clearly take risks to enjoy tanning, which is one potential sign of addiction. But 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: if it didn’t, it couldn’t be experienced as pleasant.

MORE: Balancing the Risks: Skin Cancer Patients Are Deficient in Vitamin D

Further, it’s no secret that sunlight is rewarding. If it weren’t, happy temperaments wouldn’t be called “sunny” and people would stop lying out in the sun when their doctors warn them about cancer risks. Cats wouldn’t look so happy splayed out in warm spots.

It makes biological sense for UV light to feel good. It raises levels of vitamin D levels (which may even reduce the risk of some cancers). Before fire was tamed and artificial light was invented, humans needed to be active during the daytime in order to survive — that might also contribute to the light–happiness connection.

NEXT: “Enjoyment doesn’t mean addiction”

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