Addicted to Tanning?

By Leslie Baumann

Do you ever feel like you’re positively craving a tan – whatever the risks? A mounting body of evidence suggests that it’s not just in your head, and that the desire to bask in the sun goes deeper than wanting a golden glow.

In recent years, several studies have turned to the science of addiction to determine why so many people ignore the known risks of excessive sun exposure.

In a study released in 2005, a team of researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, modified the criteria that doctors use to assess substance-abuse disorders. They found that 53 percent of 145 beach-goers studied demonstrated the signs of dependence… on tanning.

Naturally, the next step is to determine precisely what’s behind this biological response. Recent studies have found that the skin can produce endorphins, which led researchers to theorise that UV exposure stimulates endorphin production to create a sense of wellbeing in tanners.

While some research has failed to confirm this speculation, a 2006 study from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine further corroborated the endorphin theory: researchers found that half of the small group of frequent tanners studied experienced physiological symptoms of withdrawal when given an opioid-blocking drug (endorphins are in the opioid family). Infrequent tanners given the same drug were unaffected.

Other recent studies have postulated that skin’s physiological response to tanning has an evolutionary explanation: tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors may have developed this response to encourage adequate sun exposure, and therefore adequate levels of vitamin D.

Today, though, we have much wider access to vitamin D through diet and supplements (which are the best bet for anyone at high risk for skin cancer); furthermore, we know that a mere 20 minutes of UV exposure can generate requisite vitamin-D levels.

Clearly, more studies are required to get to the root of tanning addiction, but even early research offers important new insights to dermatologists who’ve long struggled to get through to devoted, high-risk tanners.

And if you find yourself frequently tanning – outdoors or in a tanning booth – please remember that things that feel good aren’t always good for you. This addiction, like many others, can seriously damage your health.

Right here on Miami Beach tanning beds are thriving. This is an extremely concerning epidemic as these beds are worse for you than the beach. This is because the beach has UVA and UVB rays – the UVB makes you red so you wisely cover up or go home. The UVA does not make you red but causes much more damage.

It’s no secret that sun exposure can lead to sunburns and, eventually, skin cancer. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of practice, it’s that the immediate allure of a golden tan often trumps long-term concerns.

What many people may not know, however, is that unprotected sun exposure also has more immediately negative impacts on your health – and on the appearance of your skin:

1. Sun exposure actually suppresses your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to colds and cold sores. Talk about spoiling your summer fun!

2. Sunburn also causes your body to release cytokines, chemicals that create a fever-like sensation – so even if you aren’t actually under the weather, you’ll feel like you are.

3. Sun exposure can increase acne. Many patients believe the sun actually helps their acne, but after many years of practice I can testify that acne generally worsens during the summer. While sun might initially dry out oily skin, that skin will quickly compensate by producing even more oil – and more clogged pores.

4. Regular sunbathing makes you more prone to developing rosacea. UV rays break down your skin’s collagen and elastin, which are the crucial supporting structures around your blood vessels. Eventually, when those blood vessels dilate (as you blush, for example) they lose their ability to shrink back down.

5. UV exposure also attacks your skin’s elastic tissue, which eventually causes your skin to sag. Saggy elbows and knees are particularly tricky to treat, so don’t forget them when you’re slathering on that sunscreen!

6. Bothered by dry skin? The sun will only make it drier by inhibiting the enzymes that produce ceramides, one of the crucial components of your skin barrier. A compromised skin barrier is particularly troublesome in people with sensitive skin, as it can’t block irritants as effectively.

7. Pigmented skin types often believe they don’t need to use sunscreen regularly because they are typically less likely to burn. However, anyone prone to unwanted pigmentation – like melasma, for example – should be particularly vigilant about sunscreen use, as UV rays will worsen those conditions.

In a nutshell, sun exposure can quickly worsen the appearance of your skin. If there’s one product that consistently improves my patients’ skin, it’s a good daily sunscreen.

Wishing you great skin!

Dr Leslie Baumann is the Chief of the Division of Cosmetic Dermatology and a Professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Miami, Florida. She also heads the University of Miami Cosmetic Center, which was the first university-operated centre dedicated to cosmetic dermatology in the United States. Dr Baumann’s textbook Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice (McGraw Hill 2000) is a bestseller and has been translated into four languages. She is the author or co-author of many journal articles and book chapters. She is the author of the NY Times bestselling book The Skin Type Solution (Penguin 2006) which is published in the US, UK, Australia, Brazil and soon, China. Her website, gets over 1 million hits a month and provides skin care advice to consumers. Her twice weekly Yahoo blog at has over 3 million readers. Dr. Baumann does not have her own skincare line.

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