Despite many warnings about the risks of developing skin cancers, nearly 30 million Americans tan indoors every year, and more than a million visit tanning salons each day. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 120,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed every year in the U.S. So why do people continue the dangerous practice of tanning? Many tanners say they like their darker skin tone, they feel they look healthier, more youthful. But scientists have long suspected that frequent exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in tanning beds has the potential to become addictive, and for some people, tanning is a tough or impossible habit to kick.
Results of a recent study at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center seem to indicate that frequent exposure to UV rays actually changes brain activity. By means of radioisotopes injected into a group of frequent tanners, those who tan three or more times a week, the researchers were able to peer into the brains of their subjects. Scientists monitored how tanning affected their brain activity and discovered that the brain activity and blood flow of subjects who received the UV rays during tanning sessions mimicked the patterns of drug addiction. During tanning sessions when UV rays were filtered out, the subjects, who were not told if they were receiving UV rays, seemed to know that they had not received their usual dose of UV rays and expressed a desire to tan some more. When subjects received the UV rays, their desire to tan was satisfied.
The author of this study said the research indicates that some individuals seem to be addicted to tanning, as long-term tanners have difficulty cutting back or stopping their tanning sessions despite serious health risks. One dermatologist involved in the study expressed concern about her young adult patients who immediately went back tanning after she cut out their skin cancers.
In addition to the risk of skin cancer, tanning can cause other serious changes in the body, including premature aging of the skin, immune suppression, eye damage (from UV radiation) and allergic reactions. There are no safe tanning beds or sun lamps.
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Brittany Lietz Cicala of Chesapeake Beach, Md., began tanning indoors at age 17. She stopped at age 20 when she was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The former Miss Maryland says she used tanning beds at least four times a week, and sometimes every day.
“Growing up, until I started using tanning beds, my parents were very strict about me wearing sunscreen,” says Cicala. Although she also tanned in the summer sun during her 3 years of tanning bed use, Cicala estimates that 90 percent of her UV exposure was in tanning beds during this period.
In the 4 years since she was diagnosed with melanoma, Cicala’s surgeries have left her with about 25 scars. Cicala gets a head-to-toe skin exam every 3 months, which usually results in removal of a suspicious growth.
This article appears on FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
Updated: May 11, 2010