Tanning Is Like Crack, According To Science

August 12, 2011

We've all seen them: the incredibly tan. These are people who actually spend time and money to become bronze. “Don't they know about skin cancer?” people wonder. Well, sure they do. But their brain might be telling them not to care, because tanning feels so good.

At least the theory researchers at the University of Texas are presenting, and they've got the research to back it up. Their experiment was simple: talk to volunteers about tanning, inject them with a drug that allows them to measure blood flow, and then stuff them in a tanning bed twice. One time, it was pure unfiltered radiation; the second time, it was blocked by an invisible filter.

The results? The researchers found that when exposed to the unfiltered UV rays, blood flow went to areas of the brain it didn't in the absence of them. Even more tellingly, all that blood went straight to an area known as a “reward-and-reinforcement trigger”, that is, a part of your brain that tells you “this feels good, keep doing it.” This is how addicts get started. No, literally, part of the process is tripping that reward-and-reinforcement trigger over and over again with the drug of choice.

Does this mean tanning is the same thing as injecting heroin straight into your eyeball? Not quite, but it does explain why, even as knowledge of skin cancer has grown, people still keep climbing into those tanning beds. See, it's not just vanity!

Photo: Nicholas Eveleigh/Iconica/Getty Images