Health: Tanning Addicts

2 minute read
Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

We’ve all seen extreme tanners–those overly bronzed folks who have baked themselves to an otherworldly color. Such sun worshipping may not be just a love affair with Helios; it may be an addiction, according to a study published in this month’s Archives of Dermatology.

Hooked on light? That’s right, say researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. They canvassed 145 beachgoers, using two standardized substance-abuse surveys adapted to sunbathing. After asking the tanners a range of questions from the first survey–including whether they wake up in the morning thinking about tanning and whether they get annoyed when others tell them to tan less–the researchers concluded that 26% qualified as being addicted to tanning behavior. When the second survey–the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for substance abuse–was used, that number jumped to 53%.

One reason tanning is so seductive, according to dermatologist Richard Wagner, an author of the study, is that it gives many people an improved body image, despite the fact that they are placing themselves at high risk for skin cancer, including often lethal melanoma. There may be a physical side to the addiction too. Sunlight interacts with the skin to produce endorphins, natural opiates that send the brain a message of well-being.

Increasing the danger of addictive tanning, research on it is still so new that there aren’t good interventions for it as there are for other addictions. Some states–including Texas, Wisconsin, California and Illinois–have age minimums for people visiting tanning salons. But for most people, self-policing is best. If you are worried that you may have a tanning problem, that’s a red flag that you do. A visit to a psychologist could help you know for sure. –With reporting by Shahreen Abedin/New York

Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at