WHEN THE MORNING FOG lifts and the sun comes out, so does Gina Privitere. On any given sunny day, you’ll find the 35-year-old freelance publicist basking in her back yard, a nearby park, or maybe at a sidewalk cafe in the sunny seat — across from her hat-wearing, sun-shy friends who tend to sport a lighter shade of pale.
While many beauty and health-conscious people slather on the sunscreen to avoid those UV rays, Privitere is drawn to them. She wears some sunscreen — but only enough to prevent her from burning and not enough to prevent her from having a nice tan, preferably year-round.
“Everyone sort of refers to me as slightly tanorexic,” she says. Tanorexic, as in she just can’t get enough of the sun. Tanorexic, as in she’s got “an addiction,” to the sun, she says only slightly tongue-in-cheek.
Tanorexia is not a diagnosable medical condition. But spending time in the sun or under sunlamps certainly can wreak havoc with your skin: ultraviolet rays can cause cancer, premature aging and can even suppress the immune system, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
So why would anyone soak up those rays on purpose? Vanity? Trying to recapture lost youth?
Some people think they look better with a tan, but there may be another reason. The sun can act like a drug, says a study published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ultraviolet (UV) rays may create a skin reaction that may release endorphins, narcoticlike molecules, as well as other chemicals, says study author Steven Feldman of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
“If you look at when most people are on the beach, it’s when it’s stinking hot, it’s crowded and they’re baking in the UV,” Feldman says. “Why? They’re soaking up the UV like a drug. They lay out and they go, ‘Ooh, ahh. I feel so good.’ It has an effect on their brain.”
“It’s not the warmth. It’s not the being baked. It’s the UV and light hitting your skin,” Feldman says.
In Feldman’s six-week study, 14 teens and young adults (ages 16 to 34) used tanning beds two days a week. They spent 15 minutes lying in one bed, then switched to a second bed for another 15 minutes. The two tanning beds looked and felt exactly alike, except one exposed them to UV light. On the other, the UV rays were blocked.
Subjects were given the option of coming in on a third day and using the tanning bed of their choice; 12 of the 14 did. And 95 percent of the time they chose to lie on the bed that radiated UV light, saying it made them feel good and helped them relax.
Some have speculated that people might feel good simply because they’re exposed to light and allowed to relax. But this study showed that the good feelings were caused by more than just the light and rest: it was actually the UV rays, Feldman says, adding that more study is needed to understand exactly what causes that effect.
In the meantime, it may help explain why tanning is so popular.
Some 28 million Americans visit or use the nation’s 25,000 tanning salons, says Jeff Needleman, a spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association.
And younger people are more likely than ever to go out in the sun without sunscreen, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. People under 25 who use sunscreen when outdoors dropped from 49 percent in 1996 to 34 percent in 2003, according to the group’s latest data.
Privitere knows the risks but still, she says, “I just feel better and healthier when I have more color.”
But most dermatologists still rail against unprotected sun worship.
While a few say that the body needs UV rays to make vitamin D, most say there are better ways to get it, such as drinking milk. And they recommend either staying out of the sun altogether or wearing a full-spectrum sunscreen that blocks the two types of harmful ultraviolet light from the sun — UVA and UVB rays.
“I see people who protect their skin look wonderful at the age of 80, and I see people who do not protect their skin look horrible at the age of 30,” says Miami dermatologist Flor Mayoral.
“I see it every single day. It’s not worth it.”
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