Sun Tanning Addiction

Sun exposure has some positive and many negative effects for humans. The skin requires exposure to UV-B rays from the sun in order to stimulate vitamin D synthesis, as a lack of vitamin D can cause illnesses like rickets and may increase the risk of cancer. With this said, UV light is also a known carcinogen, and excessive exposure can cause cancer.

In spite of the connection with cancer, sunbathing, tanning, and other activities involving a high degree of UV exposure continue to be popular, and the incidence of skin cancer continues to increase about 3 percent per year.

Image Credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Studies on sunseekers have shown that many meet psychological criteria for a substance-related disorder, that avid tanners could distinguish between true UV exposure and mock exposure in blind tanning bed experiments, and that among frequent tanners, administration of naltrexone induces withdrawal symptoms.

A study in 2014 by researcher David Fisher and his colleagues from Brigham and Women’s Hospital detailed a mechanism for this apparent addictive relationship.

Illustration of the segment of the exposed skin to sunlight and solar UVA, UVB, UVC. Image Credit: Alexilusmedical / Shutterstock
Illustration of the segment of the exposed skin to sunlight and solar UVA, UVB, UVC. Image Credit: Alexilusmedical / Shutterstock


UV light induces damage to epidermal keratocytes through p53-mediated transcriptional induction of the proopiomelanocortin (POMC) gene. POMC is then cleaved into two peptides: α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH) and β-endorphin. α-MSH stimulates melanocytes to produce the pigment eumelanin, which tans the skin. β-endorphin, however, is a highly abundant endogenous opioid that binds to the μ-opioid receptor. Exogenous opioids that bind to the μ-opioid receptor are typically addictive.

In their study, Fisher, et al found that repeated UV exposure produces opioid receptor-mediated addiction in mice with measurable withdrawal symptoms induced by naloxone.

A knockout of a gene in the UV-response pathway prevented the addictive behavior response. The authors speculate that an evolutionary mechanism may reinforce sun-seeking behavior.

Signs of Sun Addiction

Some indications that an individual may have sun addiction include withdrawal when unable to access sunshine or tanning, being unable to stop even when you want to, and continuing to tan regularly even after you’ve had skin cancer.

Risk Factors

Genetics may play a role in susceptibility to sun addiction. A 2014 study by the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale Cancer Center found that a variant of the gene PTCHD2 may increase the risk of developing a tanning addiction.

Women with lighter skin are also at higher risk. As well, some psychological factors have been shown to play a role in sun addiction. Body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder correlate with addiction to sun or tanning.


Public health experts recommend educating young people about the dangers of sun exposure and the potential for addiction before they have formed a habit. For those who already have sun addiction, treatment may help them to kick the habit.

For those who desire the look of tan skin, self-tanning creams and sprays are available on the market, and exercise can offer a healthier benign endorphin boost without the cancer risk.

Like other addicts, recovering sun addicts should avoid situations that can trigger relapse, like health clubs that offer tanning beds and associating with other tanners.


  1. Skin β-Endorphin Mediates Addiction to UV Light,
  2. Tanning Addiction: The New Form of Substance Abuse,
  3. US News and World Report, Are you Addicted to the Sun?

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 19, 2023

Dr. Catherine Shaffer

Written by

Dr. Catherine Shaffer

Catherine Shaffer is a freelance science and health writer from Michigan. She has written for a wide variety of trade and consumer publications on life sciences topics, particularly in the area of drug discovery and development. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and began her career as a laboratory researcher before transitioning to science writing. She also writes and publishes fiction, and in her free time enjoys yoga, biking, and taking care of her pets.


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  1. Marc Sorenson Marc Sorenson United States says:

    Each year the public wears more sunscreen and each year more melanoma cases occur. It is rather like telling the people that each year more people smoke, and each year more people get lung cancer; so what we need to do is smoke more. That is, of course, ridiculous. Sunscreens have not been shown to stop melanoma; in fact, quite the opposite. Sun exposure is necessary for health. Here are some facts about sun exposure you probably hadn't heard:

    Increased sun exposure is not the reason for increased melanoma! Outdoor work has decreased by 90% in the last century, while melanoma has increased by 3,000%. It is not sun exposure that causes health problems; it is sun deprivation. The latest research shows that sunscreen use is leading to widespread vitamin D deficiency, and sun deprivation, not sun exposure, is leading to 336,000 deaths yearly. There has also been an 8,300% increase in vitamin D deficiency in children since 2000, which is likely due to insufficient time playing outdoors and/or sunscreen use. So you see, all of this "protection" may be fatal. Get your sunshine, produce vitamin D be smart. Here are more facts you should know about the importance of your friend, the Sun.

    •A 20-year Swedish study shows that sun avoidance is as bad for the health as cigarette smoking.
    •A Spanish study shows that women who seek the sun have one-eleventh the hip-fracture risk as those who avoid sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential to human survival, and sun exposure is the only natural way to obtain it. Sunbathing can produce up to 20,000 units of vitamin D in 20 minutes of whole-body exposure around noon.
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    • Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, which is vital to human health.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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