Are you someone who just can’t live without a rich, glowing suntan? Do you lay out or visit a tanning bed several times a week, summer and winter? Does your monthly budget include enough for indoor tanning plus creams to maintain your darker color? If any of these sound familiar, you might have a tanning addiction — and according to recent data from Yale University, it may have a genetic component.
The idea that ultraviolet (UV) rays, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, can actually be addictive is a fairly new concept. Research that came out in September 2014 in the journal Experimental Dermatology suggests that people can get hooked on tanning in much the same way some become addicted to substances like alcohol and drugs. The researchers defined what they called “tanning dependence” as continued and frequent tanning despite adverse consequences, such as skin cancer; or tanning with greater frequency than required to maintain a tan. “Any amount of tanning is dangerous,” stresses Andrew DeWan, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the department of chronic disease epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the researchers on the study.
In their research Dr. DeWan and his colleagues found, he says, that “there may be those who are more at risk for developing an addiction to tanning based on one or more genetic variants that they inherited from their parents.” To establish a possible genetic connection the researchers tested the saliva of 79 people with signs of tanning addiction — including feeling stress relief and improved mood when exposed to more UV rays – and 213 people who tanned but didn’t show signs of addiction. Next, the scientists examined more than 300,000 gene variations. One gene, called the PTCHD2, clearly stood out. “Not much is known about the gene PTCHD2, except that it’s expressed primarily in the brain,” says DeWan. The study – the first to suggest a possible genetic link to tanning dependence – was conducted with a relatively small number of subjects and work is still needed to determine how the gene may be involved in tanning addiction. “This is a fairly new idea,” DeWan admits, “but [it’s] an active area of research for several groups who are developing tools to assess tanning addiction.”
Researchers already suspect compulsive tanning is tied to a need to repeat the calming feeling that happens when the brain releases certain chemicals in response to UV light. What’s more, tanning addicts often struggle with body image and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other issues, so teasing out the possible role of genetics will take more research involving much larger trials.
Tanning Dramatically Raises the Risk of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer: More than 3.5 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, and more than 73,000 cases of melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) are expected to be diagnosed in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. The rate at which the disease is increasing is even more disturbing: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), melanoma rates more than doubled from 1982 to 2011. The CDC report notes that without more efforts aimed at prevention, melanoma will continue to increase over the next 15 years, with 112,000 new cases projected in 2030.
So whether or not tanning addiction is genetic — or even whether you believe that it’s possible to be truly addicted to tanning — the fact remains that the risks of this compulsive behavior can be dire. Fortunately, “social values are changing and a tan is no longer viewed as a positive,” says David Leffell, MD, professor of dermatology and surgery and chief of dermatologic surgery at Yale University School of Medicine, a member of the research team with DeWan. And that means coming to accept your skin’s natural glow, Dr. Leffell adds: “People should recognize their skin type and color as part of who they are and [know] that any artificial manipulation in the short term can have consequences.”