72% of people in the U.S. think that people look better with a tan. Why shouldn’t they? A tanned complexion is a sign of summer fun, a sporty lifestyle, and a healthy dose of Vitamin D. Unfortunately, it’s also a catalyst for the development of skin cancer. But why do we continue to mark tanning as a characteristic of beauty when its dangerous potential is so well known? The answer may lie in how the brain responds to ultraviolet radiation.
Tanning feels good. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation releases endorphins, the molecules associated with the natural high that comes from running. Like other pleasurable activities, tanning activates the reward center of the brain, the same system that plays a role in the abuse of substances like cocaine. The high that sunbathing releases triggers the brain’s pleasure center and encourages the tanner to seek it out again. (To learn more about the brain’s reward center, check out this previous post about altruism.)
Researchers believe that the pleasure received from sunbathing is similar to the feeling of using opiates. Tanning addiction is correlated with other addictive behaviors, such as alcohol dependence and marijuana use. Some studies have suggested that frequent tanners can go through feelings of withdrawal, including sweating, nausea, and anxiety, when they don’t receive their ultraviolet fix. This impulse to be exposed to ultraviolet radiation helps to explain why the use of tanning salons is on the rise, even as we become aware of the disturbing consequences, such as that young women today are eight times more likely to develop skin cancer than in previous generations.
I hope this information about the dark side of sunbathing doesn’t put a damper on anyone’s beach plans this holiday weekend. Happy Memorial Day, everyone!