By: Alisha Sunderji
With the dark days of winter fast approaching and tan lines fading like those summer memories, tanning beds are a tempting option for maintaining that healthy glow. Equating tanned skin to good health however, is a myth. A tan is your body’s response to an injury, as skin cells respond to damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays by producing more pigment. Using a tanning bed or sun lamp isn’t much better, as some beds can expose you to upwards of 5 times more radiation than conventional seaside tanning. The World Health Organization has classified tanning beds in its highest cancer-risk category, placing it in the same league as tobacco and asbestos. Most people are well aware of the relationship between exposure to UV radiation and skin cancer. Yet, we still flock to the beach in the summer, or worse, our local tanning salon, in pursuit of golden-brown hues.
A recent study published in the journal Addiction Biology cited that people who frequently use tanning beds experience changes in brain activity during their tanning sessions that mimic the patterns of drug addicts. Researchers found that several parts of the brain that play a role in addiction were activated when people were exposed to UV rays. Just as the brain associates a reward in response to the consumption of drugs, and high sugared food, UV light triggers a similar positive response. The term “tanorexia,” used to describe excessive tanning, has been coined by popular media, (playing off anorexia nervosa, an obsessive desire to be thin). A study in 2005 by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that a large proportion of sunbathers met the psychiatric definition of a substance abuse disorder, based on their answers to a variation of a test often used to help diagnose alcohol addiction.
As with alcohol, not everyone who is exposed becomes hooked on getting that “tanner’s high.” But there certainly are abusers, notably among adolescents and young adults, with one in five university students identified as being “tanorexic.” The appeals of tanning lie beyond the aesthetic, from providing relaxation to being a form of socialization.
The added benefits of tanning pale in comparison to its negative consequences, namely the fact that people under the age of thirty who use tanning machines increase their risk of skin cancer by 75 per cent. There are different definitions of what constitutes too much tanning, but the underlying message is clear: even brief exposure to UV radiation can cause mutations in the DNA of skin cells. Accumulate enough mutations and skin cancer can result.
Tanning in pursuit of vitamin D is often cited in defense of tanning beds. For the majority of the population, incidental exposure to the sun combined with normal dietary intake of vitamin D, provides adequate vitamin D intake for a healthy body throughout the year. During the winter, many head to tanning salons as a solution for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a.k.a. winter depression. “People often think of sunbathing as the antidepressant essence of light exposure. Wrong! Light therapy acts through the eyes, and requires visible light, not UV,” writes Michael Terman, PhD., Director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University in New York.
In the immortal words of Katy Perry, “California gurls, We’re unforgettable, Daisy Dukes, Bikinis on top, Sun-kissed skin, So hot we’ll melt your popsicle,” - the concept of linking tanning to beauty and health might be around for a while. There are some alternatives to roasting on the beach like a beef patty, such as using bronzer or tanning cream. For the endorphin release, exercise can be a healthy and effective coping mechanism. These simplistic suggestions aren’t in any way attempting to dismiss the seriousness of tanorexia. Over-using tanning, as a form of self-medication or otherwise, demands professional help. For the less serious cases, if the statistics aren’t enough to scare you out of the bed, taking active measures in the tanning salon, from wearing protective eyewear to waiting at least 48 hours between sessions to allow time for cell reparation, can make the process a little safer. The pursuit of beauty has often been convoluted, but the stakes have never been higher, so perhaps a change in the status quo is only a matter of time.