Despite the well-known risks of indoor tanning, the question remains: why do thirty million Americans, such as the infamous “Tanning Mom,” keep visiting tanning salons each year? The answers go beyond aesthetics, and, according to some researchers, are rooted in an addiction to the endorphins released while tanning.
The story of Patricia Krentcil, (“Tanning Mom”) broke in May of this year. Krentcil was charged with second-degree child endangerment when her daughter Anna’s school nurse noticed a rash on the young girl’s skin. When questioned by the nurse, Anna apparently replied, “I went tanning with mommy,” prompting the nurse to call child services. Krentcil denied the charges, stating that she felt she’d suddenly become a murderer. With this increased fascination in her case, the magnitude of her tanning habits were soon revealed. It was found that she pays a flat fee of $100 per month to use tanning booths around five times a week at the maximum 12 minutes per session.
According to Dr. Byron Adinoff, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, some people can become addicted to ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB rays). To test this hypothesis, Dr. Adinoff studied a small group of people who tanned indoors at least three times per week. He injected this test group with a radioisotope that allowed researchers to monitor the subjects’ brain activity. During some sessions, Dr. Adinoff filtered out the UV rays in the booth without telling the subjects, while during others he gave the participants their regular dose of UV light.
The resultant brain images showed that during regular tanning sessions, areas of the subjects’ brains which are linked to addiction lit up, whereas during UV-depraved sessions, these areas were much less active. The participants even remarked after irregular sessions that their desire to tan had not been satisfied, as opposed to the feeling of satisfaction after a regular session. Because UV light produces endorphins, many tanning buffs become addicted to the rush of euphoria they feel when tanning, either in the sunlight or in a booth.
“They all liked the session where they got the real UV light,” said Dr. Adinoff in an inerview with The New York Times. “There was some way people were able to tell when they were getting the real UV light and when they were not.”
In another study at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, researchers gave frequent tanners endorphin blockers before tanning sessions and recorded withdrawal symptoms, namely nausea, dizziness, and shakiness. Even celebrities such as Michael Kors admit to having been major tanners. “I’ve cooked my whole life at the beach, but I’ve learned my lesson,” he said after finding basal cell carcinoma on his face.
The implications of indoor tanning are especially prescient for teens and young adults. According to dermatologist Dr. Jody A. Levine tanning lamps give off four times more damaging UVA rays than the sun. Moreover, the risk of melanoma increases 75 per cent in indoor tanners under the age of 35.
In the case of Hannah Norman, a teenager from the United Kingdom, tanning addiction took on a form separate from indoor tanning. This 17-year-old was so obsessed with self-tanners – particularly because she wanted desperately to look like Snooki of Jersey Shore – that she would spend four hours daily to get made up, applying layer upon layer of tanning products.
Unfortunately, it has been found that even the “safe alternative” to indoor tanning – namely creams and sprays – come with their own slew of risks. Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, which researchers believe can alter or damage the DNA, is among the dangerous chemicals found in fake tanning products. Others include skin irritants and allergens. Norman was forced to quit her habit once her skin’s condition deteriorated into an “awful mess.”
Questions of tanning addiction and cancer risk give a deeper level of meaning to a phrase I’ve heard exclaimed many times growing up in Florida: “If you can’t tone it, tan it!” It just makes you wonder… what’s next?
What you need to know about skin cancer
Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer diagnosed in North Americans. Type “skin cancer” into Google and you’ll get 39 million results. Open any magazine in summertime and you’re bound to find an article on skin cancer. Summer news broadcasts warn about it daily. Ads for sunscreen urge you to buy their product because it’s best at protecting you from skin cancer. The list is endless, and it’s only getting longer.
There are three main forms of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC), and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Melanoma is widely considered to be the most dangerous form of skin cancer; it is the leading cause of death from skin disease. You are most at risk for melanoma if you are fair-skinned, have blue or green eyes, red or blond hair, live in sunny climates or high altitudes, spend a lot of time in the sun, have had blistering sun burns, or use tanning devices. A mole, sore, lump, or growth on the skin can be a sign of melanoma. Symptoms of melanoma can be remembered easily with the acronym “ABCDE,” or:
Asymmetry (half of the mole, sore, or growth is different from the other)
Borders (the edges of the mole are irregular)
Color (color changes from one spot to the other, from a variety of browns and tans to white, red or blue)
Diameter (the spot is larger than 6mm)
Evolution (the mole continually changes in appearance).
Melanoma spreads quickly to other areas of the body, which is part of what makes it so dangerous. Thankfully, it can be treated easily when caught early. Yearly examinations by a dermatologist and monthly self-examinations are recommended.
BCC and SCC are non-melanoma skin cancers, which means they are much less likely to result in death. BCC starts in the epidermis and occurs on skin exposed regularly to sunlight. BCC generally grows slowly and painlessly and manifests as a bump or growth that is pearly or waxy, white, light pink, or brown. It may be slightly raised or flat. In some cases, you may develop a sore that bleeds easily, does not heal, oozes or crusts, or a sore that is scar-like or sunken. There may also be irregular blood vessels on and around the area. BCC very rarely spreads to other parts of the body and is easily treatable when caught early, and small BCC is unlikely to return. SCC is similar to BCC, but is also caused by frequent x-rays and chemical exposure. It usually occurs on the hands, neck, arms, and face, and the main symptom is a growing bump that may be scaly, rough, flat, and reddish in patches. SCC grows and spreads more quickly than BCC and may reach even the internal organs. Like BCC, it is best treated early.
All skin cancers are best prevented by avoiding sunlight, especially between 10 a.m and 4 p.m., when it is most intense. Sunscreen should be applied thirty minutes before exposure and reapplied frequently, especially after swimming. The sunscreen you use should protect from UVA and UVB rays. Most importantly, tanning salons, tanning beds, and hsun lamps are best avoided.