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Genetic Component of Tanning Bed Addiction to Be Explored

A photo of a glowing tanning bed in a darkened room.About 400 young women in the Washington, D.C., area will be recruited for the Georgetown Lombardi Comphrensive Cancer Center tanning bed addiction study dedicated to investigating the possibility of a genetic aspect to the dangerous activity.

June 6, 2013 – A tanning bed addiction study by a professor at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center will look at behavioral and possible genetic aspects of the problem.

Darren Mays, assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi,  says some studies have suggested that as many as one in five women between the ages of 18 and 30 who have used an indoor tanning bed are addicted to tanning.

Mays researches behavioral cancer prevention, and is focusing on tanning bed addiction in an attempt to reduce the risk of melanoma in young women who participate in such activities.


Genetic Possibilities

Mays will look for possible genetic determinants of tanning addiction in a subset of participants, collecting DNA from participants and looking at genes associated with reward pathways seen in other forms of addiction such as alcohol and tobacco.

He expects to enroll up to 400 women in the Washington, D.C., area, including those who have tanned at least once, with the goal of capturing a range of behaviors from periodic use to habitual tanning.

“Some genes involved in addiction are related to dopamine, serotonin and opioid neurotransmitters,” Mays says. “Certain genetic attributes may relate to how people react to these neurotransmitters, and this helps drive a habitual addictive behavior.”

Range of Behaviors

The participants will be given an in-depth assessment to learn about motivations driving the behavior, such as attitudes about tanning and the positive benefits they believe they obtain, Mays says.

“This may offer us ways to predict who is at risk for possible future tanning addiction,” he says.

“Habitual tanners may feel tanning improves their mood, makes them feel and look better – some of the same drivers mentioned by tobacco users. Gaining reward from a behavior drives the addiction,” Mays notes.

“We will ask whether participants have trouble cutting down on tanning,” he adds, “[and] if they become annoyed if others tell them not to tan so much, if they feel guilty about tanning, if they have to tan more and more to feel the same pleasure they once had and … how tanning affects their state of mind.”


The professor’s goal is to find out why so many young women use tanning beds obsessively, to predict risk of addiction for specific individuals and to identify ways to intervene and reduce the risk of melanoma in the female 18- to 30-year-old population.

What some are calling “tanorexia” is linked to low weight and body image distortion, which Mays believes could be a component of tanning addiction.

Research on tanning bed addiction is “in very early stages,” Mays says. “A lot of people theorize about what is going on, but I am coming at this with a clean slate in order to really understand the issue.”

Young Investigator Award

Mays holds a Ph.D. and a master's in public health in behavioral sciences from Emory University. 

He joined Georgetown Lombardi in 2010, and is the recent recipient of a young investigator award by the Harry J. Lloyd Charitable Trust, which provides grants to research strategies that prevent and treat melanoma.

Lloyd, who founded a multinational company in the gift industry, created the trust before his death from melanoma in 1997.

Predicting Risk

The professor is hoping that his research will help dentify young women at the highest risk for tanning bed addiction.

“We are testing whether tanning addiction is real, and if it is, what can be done,” Mays explains. “I can understand how it happens, and how it becomes habitual and pleasurable. For some people who gain rewards, the behavior becomes entrenched.

“I get that – and I want to help,” he says.