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Tanning may be addictive

Thursday - 6/26/2014, 4:46pm  ET

WASHINGTON - For the many people who enjoy basking in the sun for hours on end, despite warnings of the dangers of tanning, it could be that the sun's UV rays are addictive.

Researchers have theorized about tanning addiction for some time but now they are beginning to gather proof.

Darren Mays is leading a study through the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center involving 400 or so tanners. The goal is to gain more insight into why they persist in a risky behavior.

Mays, who is also an associate professor of oncology at the Georgetown Medical Center, said part of the reason is certainly vanity.

"Some of it seems like its sort of driven by this perception that tanned skin improves physical appearance," he said.

But there is more at play here than just getting a golden glow. When it is exposed to UV radiation, the body produces feel-good endorphins, which Mays called "your body's kind of natural opiate."

A Harvard research team recently conducted experiments on mice in an effort to understand the chemical and biological process in play during tanning. They say these beta-endorphins in mice have an affect similar to heroin and morphine.

Their findings -- published in the journal Cell -- made headlines. But Mays said it is too soon to say if the results seen in mice translate to humans. And he is concerned the comparison to dangerous drugs might be overplayed, noting drug usage is a substance addiction while tanning is a behavioral addiction.

"I think it might be a little early to necessarily put those in the same category," he said. "Because we really need to learn more about this type of behavioral addiction."

Mays' work at Georgetown is focusing on people who use indoor tanning beds, particularly women between the ages of 18 and 30. The Georgetown researchers are using questionnaires and interviews to gather information on what is motivating these tanners, using the mice study at Harvard as a bit of guidance.

He said it is important to focus on the activities of younger tanners because "exposure early in life really makes a difference in terms of raising your risk of skin cancer in the future."

A new Dartmouth College study documents the link, and points to a much greater risk for basal cell carcinomas, the most common form of skin cancer, among young people who engage in indoor tanning. The study notes indoor tanning products can produce 10 to 15 times as much UV radiation as the midday sun.

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