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Studies: Tanning ‘Addicts’ Know It’s Harmful

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Is ultraviolet light an addictive “substance”?

Two new studies of university students find that frequent tanners engage in something like addictive behavior, although neither study goes so far as to label tanning a full-blown addiction.

Seth Noar, PhD, of the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, did find some parallels between tanning and smoking:

People know there are risks. They still do it. There’s a mood component and, for some, a dependence component. … Most tobacco users want to quit, but they’re addicted. It’s not a perfect parallel, but there are some parallels between tanning and smoking.

Dr. Noar was quoted in a university news release. He is lead author of an article published online earlier this month in JAMA Dermatology that details the study results.

He and his students in a health communications class surveyed 706 UNC sorority members, of whom 45 percent had used an indoor tanning bed at least once. Most of the tanners said they knew using indoor beds would harm their skin in the long run, but that didn’t affect how often they did it.

Many said it improved their mood. “It was the idea that going tanning was relaxing,” Dr. Noar said. “It lifts one’s spirits, makes someone feel good, and is enjoyable. That’s the most potent factor.”

Another study, published online in December in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, carries the provocative title “Tanning addiction and psychopathology: Further evaluation of anxiety disorders and substance abuse.”

Lead author Lisham Ashrafioun, a PhD student in psychology at Bowling Green State University in Kentucky, downplayed the implications of the title in a university news release:

We have tanning addiction in the title, but we don’t jump to the conclusion automatically that tanning is and can be an addiction.

The researchers did find that some frequent tanners engaged in behavior suggestive of obsessive-compulsive and body dysmorphic disorders.

The authors admitted to several limitations in their study. However, they said it helped clarify how to discourage people from tanning.

“Previously, clinicians educated patients on the harms of tanning,” Ashrafioun said. “It’s probably more than that. Most people know there are harms, but they continue to do it. We need to be more focused on intervention than just telling people it’s bad for them.”

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