Science Shows Tanning Can Be Addictive

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rexusa_1924227dPhoto: MediaPunch Inc/REX USA.
Ever since Patricia Krentzil — the burnished New Jersey resident better known as Tan Mom — burst onto the scene like a flash of purple UV light, many have asked the question: How much tanning is too much tanning? Our exposure to other notable orange people on Jersey Shore and (my personal fave) The Real Housewives of New Jersey has painted a picture of the practice as just this side of compulsive. But, a new study conducted by Harvard scientists suggests that, yes, it might actually be possible to become addicted to tanning — or, more precisely, to UV light.

The research, published this month in the journal Cell, looked at the effects of regular UV exposure on (shaved) mice subjects over time. The animals were given the equivalent of a 20-30 minute sunbathing session five times a week for six months. Early on, researchers observed that the subjects had already begun producing more endorphins than they had been before the experiment. As time went on, however, the scientists noticed signs that the mice were developing a higher tolerance to the UV light, needing more and more exposure to produce the same elevated level of endorphins.

But, the similarities to addiction didn't stop there. When researchers stopped giving the mice tanning opportunities, they showed classic physical symptoms of withdrawal — including chattering teeth, paw tremors, and full-body trembling. While the study didn't test the effects of sunscreen on the formation of a possible UV addiction, it would follow that blocking the absorption of at least some UV light could mitigate any habit-forming that might occur. Of course, if you're such a tanning fan that you're vulnerable to developing an addiction, SPF is probably the last thing on your mind.

In the case of Tan Mom and her fully-saturated compatriots, it could be more of a vanity thing. Our contributor network editor and resident New Jersey expert Lauren Caruso told me a story of being disinvited to a Jersey bar outing because she was "too white." Still, the study's authors are taking these results very seriously, calling for increased protection for consumers who use UV tanning beds. Friendly suggestion: This photo could go a long way towards combatting tanning addiction in America.