Tanning is addictive, say US researchers

High levels of UV exposure could be addictive, according to new research by US scientists. The study found that chronic UV exposure could produce endorphins in the body, which can lead to a similar body response to that caused by opiate drugs.

The researchers examined the effects of UV exposure on mice, as the biological responses in their skin to UV radiation is similar to that of humans. The mice were given a daily dose of UV for six weeks, and began to show increased levels of endorphins in the bloodstream within a week, along with other symptoms of opiate effects like desensitisation.

The study’s lead author, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School dermatologist Dr David Fisher, speculated that the addictive nature of tanning could help explain the reluctance to avoid sun exposure despite its associated health risks.

The mice also showed symptoms of withdrawal, such as shaking and teeth chattering, when the endorphin activity was blocked.

“We wonder whether this interaction of sun, skin and endorphins might be involved in other behaviours or disorders and whether this may represent one of the earliest behavioural responses that can be considered addictive,” Fisher said.

He added, “Our finding that persistent UV seeking really does appear to be an addiction-related behaviour suggests that reducing an individual’s skin cancer risk may require actively confronting factors that influence this hazardous behaviour.”

However, chairman of The Sunbed Association Gary Lipman disagreed with the study, saying that people were attracted to sunshine, not addicted to it. "Quite honestly, I think it is farcical to suggest that responsible UV exposure be likened to heroin addiction. In my opinion, this type of study is a headline grabber. I cannot take it seriously," he said.