Raising Awareness of Excessive Tanning Behaviors

by Jerod Stapleton, PhD

There are well-publicized dangers of excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation for the purposes of tanning, whether sunbathing outdoors or the use of indoor tanning beds. Tanning has been associated with increased risk of all types of skin cancer, including the deadly melanoma, and is linked to wrinkling and other types of damage that resemble premature skin aging. It is encouraging to see that the increased awareness of these risks appears to have resulted in reduced rates of intentional tanning with tanning beds over the past few years in the United States.

Researchers have recently begun to take a closer look at the possibility that tanning could have addictive-like qualities. Our recent scientific literature review article (Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, published online June 22, 2017) presents the case for considering excessive tanning as a potentially addictive behavior starting with evidence that exposure to UV radiation can result in the stimulation of pleasure/reward responses in the body that mimic, although to a lower intensity, responses produced during the use of addictive drugs. Recently, researchers demonstrated these processes by showing that mice chronically exposed to UV radiation develop biological and behavioral signs of dependency.  This small but growing body of research has led a growing number of researchers to begin seriously study tanning as a behavioral addiction and to document the problematic aspects of excessive tanning. Although there is no official recognition of tanning addiction by the psychiatric community, research suggests there are some warning signs that an excessive tanner may be experiencing addictive-like qualities of UV exposure, including:

  • Tanning when feeling distressed or in a bad mood
  • Experiencing desires, urges, or cravings to go tanning
  • Repeatedly making unsuccessful attempts to control, reduce, or stop tanning.
  • Feeling irritable when attempting to cut down or stop tanning
  • Experiencing problems or missed time with social, education, or work obligation because of time spent tanning

Unfortunately, as highlighted by our recent literature review, effective treatments for tanning addiction or programs to assist in tanning cessation have yet to be developed. For those looking to reduce tanning activity, set a goal and make a plan that might include alternate behaviors such as using sunless tanning products like creams or sprays. It is also important to remember that changing one’s behavior is difficult and that it may take multiple attempts to have the desired success.

Jerod Stapleton, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist in the Population Science Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.



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