Can Frequent Indoor Tanning Lead to Addiction?

As the FDA weighs stricter regulations on the tanning industry, a new approach may be needed to combat compulsive indoor tanning, which, in extreme cases, can resemble addiction.

Temptation to hit the tanning booth for a “healthy” summer glow could be more than just a seasonal whim, according to a new study. Research published this month in the Archives of Dermatology suggests frequent indoor tanners could be addicted to the practice.

Although no evidence showed indoor tanning was inherently habit-forming, researchers did find that many of those who admitted to regular sessions also met the psychological criteria used to identify addiction. For young people, even one trip to the tanning salon can substantially increase risk of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. “Studies show first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75%,” the organization wrote on its Web site.

Catherine E. Mosher, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said the results could lead to new, counseling-based strategies for addressing the problem of excessive tanning.

Dr. Mosher evaluated the tanning habits of 421 college students using a set of questions designed to assess their level of dependency. Questionnaires were developed using 2 standard measures of addiction and substance-related disorders—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) and the CAGE (Cut down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye-opener) questionnaire, commonly used to screen for alcoholism.

Among the 229 participants who said they had used indoor tanning facilities, 39.3% met the DSM-IV-TR criteria and 30.6% met the CAGE criteria. A total of 78% of those classified as addicted said they had tried and failed to cut down; 78% said they experienced guilt as a result of their tanning habit; 26% admitted wanting to tan immediately upon waking up; and nearly 1 in 4 said tanning had interfered with social and work-related activities, the Washington Post reported.

As to why some might turn to tanning the way others would rely on drugs or alcohol, Dr. Mosher believes it could be a coping mechanism. “There is some growing evidence now that people use tanning as a way to cope with stressors, as a way to increase positive mood, decrease negative moods, and cope with environmental demands,” she said.

Tanners who met the criteria for addiction also said they were fully informed of the risks they incurred each time they chose to tan. Despite this awareness, many reported tanning as many as 100 times a year—a finding that could influence policy reform and public health initiatives going forward.

One regulation currently under review by the FDA would require tanning beds to be equipped with mechanisms that would not allow customers to activate the beds until they read and acknowledged a series of disclaimers. If Dr. Mosher’s research is any indication, the FDA may need to change its approach, lest its well-intentioned warnings fall on deaf—and deeply bronzed—ears.

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • Asthma and Allergies Linked to Climate Change
  • Next-Generation Pharmacist: Shining the Spotlight on Pharmacists
  • Computer-Translated Prescriptions Put Patients at Risk