Are You Addicted to the Sun?

A new study shows it’s possible.

No offense, Sussex County, but I really hate the beach. Even as a kid, I could never understand how anyone could find it enjoyable to lie on a towel atop the hot sand and be assaulted by the aggressive rays of a merciless orb. Really, even if it didn’t cause skin cancer and premature aging, it’s got to be the most uncomfortable boring non-activity on earth.

Some of my friends and relatives used to flaunt gorgeous tans and for years I had to fend off comments like, “You’re so pale and wan, you really shouldn’t wear white in the summer.” Even my father encouraged me to get outside and get some sun because, “nothing becomes you like a tan,” although neither he nor my mother ever seemed to lead by example. But being an independent sort, I held my ground—pasty and proud.

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Now the sun worshippers have skin that looks like an old briefcase and complexions so discolored and mottled their faces resemble a tossed salad.  Meanwhile, I have skin that impresses even the most discerning dermatologists and plastic surgeons. Now, who’s got the bragging rights?  If I sound smug, it’s because I am.

But a recent study suggests that an attitude adjustment might be in order. Turns out sun-worshippers are not necessarily vane creatures. They’re addicts. A new study in the journal Cell shows that UV radiation—even in modest amounts—prompts production of the “feel-good” hormone beta-endorphin in mice. Moreover, when scientists administered an endorphin-blocking drug, the mice exhibited classic withdrawal symptoms: teeth-chattering, shaking and jumpiness. 

The study marks the first time scientists mapped out the pathway in mice from UV exposure to rising levels of beta-endorphin in the blood to physical dependence on sunlight. The findings add to a growing body of research examining extreme tanning as a possible addiction in humans and could explain why people love to sunbathe despite all the warnings about cancer risks and premature aging.

“There are a lot of studies out there that show that tanning is in many ways very similar to an addiction that people get to alcohol, or cigarette smoking or drugs,” says Dr. Joseph Andrews of Delaware Dermatology in Dover. “Not everyone who starts to drink or smoke continues to drink or smoke. But there are those people who get that endorphin rush and I think that that they get hooked.”

Preventing an addiction is better than trying to treat one. “The American Academy of Dermatology has been advocating not allowing anyone less than 18 to go to a tanning bed,” says Andrews. “I think that’s really good advice. If we’re going to do it for smoking and drinking, why not tanning?”

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Indeed. Sen. Cathy Cloutier, R-Heatherbrooke, sponsored legislation that bans all minors from using ultraviolet tanning devices in salons. It becomes law Jan. 1, 2015.

Still an appeal to vanity can’t hurt. Andrews gives this bit of advice to his teenaged patients: “When you turn 40, I want you to look in the mirror. If that person looking back looks 30 instead of 40, I want you to say, ‘Thank you, Dr. Andrews.’ If that person looking back looks 50 instead of 40, I want you to hear me say: ‘I told you so.’”


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