November 1, 2017

Tanning and Depression

People who pursue a tan, even knowing the risk of skin cancer, may be self-treating for depression.

Many believe they look better with a tan, but the risk of developing skin cancer keeps most of us out of the sun without plenty of sun block and away from indoor tanning salons. There are some young women who appear to be addicted to indoor tanning beds, however, and depression may be one of the reasons.

More than one in five young white women, who used a tanning bed at least once within the last year, showed signs of addiction to indoor tanning, a recent study from researchers at Georgetown University found. Young women who were addicted to tanning were three times more likely to have symptoms of depression compared to those who were not addicted.

Young women who were addicted to tanning were three times more likely to have symptoms of depression compared to those who were not addicted.

For tanning addicts, becoming aware of the risk of skin cancer may not be enough. “The intervention model needs to go beyond informing about risks and include treatment of depressive symptoms,” Darren Mays, corresponding author on the study, told TheDoctor.

The researchers analyzed data submitted online from 389 non-Hispanic, white women, aged 18 to 30. The participants who were addicted to indoor tanning reported stronger opioid-like reactions to indoor tanning and placed a higher value on the perceived benefits of indoor tanning, compared to those who are not addicted. They also had lower self-esteem, were more concerned about their appearance and likelier to screen positively for symptoms of depression than those who were not addicted.

One theory about why people with depression may become addicted to indoor tanning is that the high doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted from tanning beds causes the release of β-endorphins, which may produce an opioid-like response, said Mays, an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. β-endorphins are natural mood enhancers, so people may experience something similar to a ‘runner’s high’ after tanning. It could serve to relieve depression much the way light treatment for seasonal affective disorders does.

“The fact that women with depressive symptoms were three times more likely to be addicted to indoor tanning really stood out to us,” Mays said. The research results suggested a few questions worth further study — are people who experience anxiety and depression drawn to tanning beds as a form of self-treatment? And is it possible that stress and depression are the result of a withdrawal-type phenomenon when people stop using tanning beds?

The study is published in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

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