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tanning addiction

Tanning Addiction; Dermatologist's Personal Story

tanning addiction

The New York Times online health blog yesterday featured a fascinating article about tanning addiction titled Addicted To Tanning?  One of the most interesting aspects of the article was a study showing that chronic tanners experienced withdrawal symptoms (jitters and nausea) when they were given the narcotic withdrawal drug called naltrexone. This suggests that tanning produces pleasure-giving narcotic-like hormones called endorphins. When these hormones are blocked by naltrexone, the tanners experience narcotic withdrawal!

Well, I just had to post a comment on the New York Times!  I’m surprised at what memories came up for me when I read the article and wanted to share my comment with you.  Here is the comment I left on the New York Times online health blog concerning the article:

I am a dermatologist who had a tanning addiction as a teen and young adult!

dermatologist Dr. Bailey's tips to use tretinoin

I’m a practicing dermatologist and was probably addicted to tanning as a teen and young adult. I was unable to stop tanning in spite of having surgery for a skin growth that was at first thought to be a very aggressive melanoma. In the end the growth was not cancer, I did not have the lower leg amputation recommended by my first dermatologist, but the scare did not deter me from tanning.

It wasn’t until my dermatology residency in San Diego that I found the resolve to stop; seeing sun damage and skin cancer in patient after patient was like the shock therapy used to help people stop smoking. For the last 25 years I’ve avidly sun protect my skin. Interestingly, my facial skin texture looks younger now than when I was in my 20’s and tanning. Also interesting is that my family now has a strong family history of melanoma and I’m convinced that if I had continued tanning, I probably would not be here today.

I began suntanning in my preteen years. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I laid in the sun from February to October, weather permitting, in my backyard. I used an L-shaped area of our stucco house as a large reflector (yes, I was a smart girl). I also swam competitively and laid out before and after workouts. I sun baked at Tahoe and on any river or lake I could. The image at the top of the page would have been my idea of the perfect day. Heck, in college I would even study outside in the sun to multitask. I was obsessed - and addicted.

I can't count the number of blistering sunburns I had growing up. I am sure that they number in the hundreds. My fair skinned nose was constantly peeling from sunburns. The part line on my scalp peeled, my shoulders always peeled and my chest often had a red sunburn line. The worst burn I ever had was in high school. I had sun sickness from sitting in the direct summer sun all day at a Peter Frampton concert at the Oakland Colosseum. My shins were so badly burned I could not walk. That was AFTER the dangerous skin growth was cut off my leg! I am a recovering tanning addict and I admit it.

Many of my patients cite a healthy need for Vitamin D as their rational for tanning. Is it true?

As for the vitamin D argument, fair skin makes all the vitamin D it needs in the first few minutes of sun exposure. Continued exposure actually starts to break the vitamin D down.

Knowing that sun protection is never perfect, I recommend sun protecting your skin, and the ‘margin of error’ in your sun protection usually lets enough sun into your skin for vitamin D production. To really know what your vitamin D needs are get your vitamin D level tested. Ask your doctor for advice. I find there is very little correlation between patients that sun protect or tan and vitamin D levels. My specific advice and more information on vitamin D are available on one of my recent blog posts.

It's funny that I didn't go into dermatology because of this early near brush with melanoma.  It's also funny that it took my residency experiences to get me out of the sun. Yes, I had a tanning addiction. Now I know why I would not stop tanning.

dermatologist's best sun protection


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