Ask a Scientist: Can You Really Get Addicted to Tanning?

The Scientist: Claudia Aguirre, Ph.D., a neuroscientist working in the skincare industry

The Answer: In this age of Tan Mom and teenage tanorexia, it’s easy to see that tanning is a risky behavior that can get a person hooked. Over the past decade, a number of studies have emerged that point to the addictive potential of tanning, despite—or in spite of—a growing awareness of the dangers thereof. A May 2012 article in the journal Addiction Biology found that UV radiation—much like sugar, or drugs—activates reward centers in the brains of habitual tanners. In fact, a Harvard Medical School study from June 2014 found that, in rats, exposure to UV has a heroin-like effect, producing feel-good endorphins, increasing pain thresholds and eliciting withdrawal symptoms later.

But unlike addiction to heroin and other opiates, people are not losing their jobs or causing harm to others just to get a dose of sunshine. Frequent tanning, research shows, is similar in nature to being addicted to nicotine, and the underlying cause may be related to body dysmorphic disorder, a psychological disorder characterized by preoccupations with imagined or minor defects in one’s appearance. This could translate into sun-seeking behavior as a way to cope with negative self-image, which can then become a lifelong quest to never be pale again.

It’s possible that the urge to brown has adaptive roots: People need sun on their skin in order to make vitamin D. But there are ways to get D that don’t come with a significant risk of melanoma, like limiting your time in the sun without sunscreen to around 15 minutes a day (avoiding tanning beds altogether), and eating vitamin D-rich foods such as low-fat dairy and mushrooms.

READ MORE: Test Your Sun Saftey Knowlege

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