Addicted to the Sun
How You Get Hooked
Obviously, the promise of golden skin is a major reason why people love to bask in the sun, but the mood-boosting effects are also a powerful motivator. And the sensation isn't all in your head: When UV light hits your skin it triggers the production of endorphins, opiate-like chemicals responsible for the high you get from exercise, sex, and chocolate.
Dr. Feldman's research suggests that it's these mood-lifting chemicals that may drive our desire to soak up UV rays. In one study, he had tanning-salon regulars lie in two identical-looking tanning beds twice a week, one of which was rigged to block UV light (a detail Dr. Feldman didn't reveal). At the end of the study, when he asked participants which bed they preferred, 95 percent chose the one without the blocker. "They told me it was more relaxing," he says.
In a follow-up study, Dr. Feldman gave a group of frequent and infrequent tanners a drug that blocks the release of endorphins before they baked in tanning beds. "The drug didn't have any effect on the infrequent tanners, but half of the regular tanners went into withdrawal," he says. "They got jittery and nauseated, just like drug addicts do when they try to go off narcotics." Two participants dropped out of the study owing to their symptoms.
Research conducted at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston also appears to support the addiction theory. When dermatologist Richard Wagner, Jr., MD, and his colleagues surveyed beachgoers about their tanning habits using two substance-dependence screening tools (asking questions such as "Do you think you need to spend more and more time in the sun to maintain your tan?" and "Does your belief that tanning can cause skin cancer keep you from spending time in the sun or going to tanning beds?"), they found that anywhere from 26 to 53 percent of people met the criteria for tanning dependence.
Cindy Booth, 48, who was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago, might put herself in that category. "When I was younger I would go into a near panic if I didn't get a chance to work on my tan on the weekends," says Booth, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though she stopped tanning after her diagnosis, the lure of the sun remains powerful. "I still put on SPF 30 sunscreen and sit outside for a few minutes," she confesses -- an extremely dangerous move for a skin-cancer survivor but one that doesn't come as a surprise to most dermatologists. "I treat women who have had three bouts of skin cancer and still tan," says St. Petersburg, Florida-based dermatologist James Spencer, MD. "For some people it's a very hard habit to break, possibly because of its addictive qualities."