Good Day, Sunshine: Why They Tan

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

This time of year dermatologists are wringing their pale, smooth hands in dismay and frustration: Why don't people listen to the warnings about the risks of sunlight? Vanity and the recklessness of the young usually get the blame. But maybe there's more to the urge to bake than looks and youthful abandon. A small, provocative study seems to say so. It links the penetration of ultraviolet rays to the release of pleasure-inducing endorphins in the brain. Writing in The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, a group of researchers reported that they sought out volunteers who regularly went to tanning salons and invited them to lounge in tanning beds at no charge over a period of six weeks. The 14 volunteers - 13 women and a man - came in twice a week and were directed to one of two seemingly identical tanning beds. But one of the beds was equipped with a UV filter and the other wasn't. When the volunteers were given mood assessments afterwards, those who had not been shielded from the ultraviolet light consistently seemed more content and more relaxed. And when the group was given the opportunity to come in on a third day and choose one bed or the other, 11 of the 12 people headed straight for the bed that provided ultraviolet light. The researchers liken that response to the persistence of other risky behaviors, like smoking and drug use. They note that tanning salons are increasingly popular - their use tripled from 1986 to 1996 - and point to a survey of college-age tanning-bed users who often said that their love of sunbathing was enhanced by the sense of well-being it produced. The lead author of the study, Dr. Steven R. Feldman, professor of dermatology, pathology and public health sciences at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said: "They''re lying out on their backs and they're saying, 'Ah, this feels so good.' These people are getting their little hit of UV."

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