Is sunlight the new drug of choice?
No matter how many studies prove that overexposure to ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer, people continue to frequent tanning salons to jump-start their beach bronze -- as many as 30 million customers a year, according to the Indoor Tanning Association.
Why can't they kick the habit• New research suggests the feel-good effects of UV light on the skin might be addictive. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston says tanners can develop a mild dependence on the endorphins that are released when tanning, which produce a sort of "runners' high."
"Tanning can be addictive because it is a mood stabilizer," says Dr. Larisa Geskin, director of cutaneous oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and professor of dermatology at Pitt. "Teenagers usually don't think about cancer. They want to feel good, and they want to look good."
Self-proclaimed "ex-tanner" Ilana Ransom, 19, of Friendship, started using tanning beds her senior year of high school. Then, she tanned every day last summer when working at a camp by the beach.
"I thought I looked prettier, and all my friends told me I looked prettier," Ransom says.
But she made herself quit tanning because of all the health risks, including melanoma, and now uses self-tanning lotion.
Jeff Magnotti, owner of Oakland Oasis Tanning Salon, says if you're going to tan, there are advantages to indoor tanning: namely, the controlled environment.
"I know exactly what I'm going to get in a tanning bed," says Magnotti, who tans two to three times a week, year-round. "When you're outside, with the pollution and clouds, you never know what you're going to get."
Magnotti recommends that his customers only come in every other day, and moisturize.
"I don't think tanning can become an addiction," Magnotti says. "I think it's a force of habit."
Amy Donato, 22, of Ligonier, says she tans only a few weeks each year, starting in the spring.
"I like it when my tan looks natural, so I don't go too often because I don't want to be real dark, and I don't tan in the winter," Donato says, walking out of Hollywood Tans in Shadyside.
Beth Anne Elko, co-owner of Shadyside Tan and Massage, says most of her customers tan for the look.
"I tan because I think I look better, and I tan in the winter because I can feel a little depressed in the winter," Elko says. "My opinion is that anything in moderation is fine."
But Geskin, from Pitt's Medical Center, argues there is no such thing as a healthy tan.
"When your skin turns dark,," she says, "it means that your body had to protect you from UV light."
Tanning salons vs. doctors
In one corner: The Hollywood Tans Tanning Salons Web site proclaims the benefits of tanning
- Boosts metabolism because sunlight stimulates the thyroid gland
- 80 percent of psoriasis sufferers improve with UV exposure
- Relieves stress by decreasing adrenaline levels and releasing endorphins
- Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers improve with exposure to UV light
- Helps clear the skin
In the other corner: The FDA and medical professionals warn consumers of the dangers of tanning
- Increases the risk of developing skin cancer such as malignant melanoma or carcinoma
- Damages the immune system
- Ages the skin prematurely, giving it a wrinkled, leathery appearance
- Can cause painful sun burn
- Can be addictive
Can you kick the habit?
Answer these questions, which are similar to those posed to alcoholics:
- Do you try to cut down on the time you spend in the sun but find yourself still suntanning•
- Do you ever get annoyed when people tell you not to tan?
- Do you ever feel guilty that you are in the sun too much?
- Do you think you need to spend more and more time in the sun to maintain your perfect tan?
Tanning salon precautionsTanning salons are not regulated by the state of Pennsylvania. But if you are a fiend for that golden glow, take these precautions to protect your skin:
- Wear goggles in the tanning bed
- Apply sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 15 or greater to block both UVA and UVB rays
- Use a lotion with bronzer to add a darker hue and make the skin look darker longer
- Use moisturizer after each tanning session
- Don't tan every day.