Background: Investigations into tanners' reasons for tanning have focused primarily on the perception of improved appearance. Reported relaxing effects of tanning suggest the possibility of a physiologic effect of UV that drives tanning behavior.
Objective: We sought to determine if there is a physiologic reinforcing effect of UV exposure, separate from appearance motivation, that may contribute to tanning behavior.
Methods: We determined the reinforcing effect of UV light in a series of controlled, blinded, repeated-choice trials of UV carefully designed to separate as cleanly as possible reinforcing effects of UV exposure from other factors including perceived benefits of having a tan. A total of 14 young adults who used tanning beds regularly were exposed to otherwise identical UV and non-UV tanning bed stimuli on Mondays and Wednesdays for 6 weeks. On Fridays, participants had concurrent access to the two beds. The primary dependent variable was the percentage of choice sessions during which more UV than non-UV tanning was chosen.
Results: In all, 12 participants chose additional tanning exposure on Fridays and, of these, 11 consistently used the UV bed for that exposure. Of the total 41 occasions when participants chose to tan on Friday, 39 sessions (95%) were for the UV bed and only two for the non-UV bed. A more relaxed and less tense mood was reported after UV exposure compared with after non-UV exposure (P=.008 and P=.002, respectively).
Discussion: When exposed to UV and non-UV under blinded conditions, frequent tanners can distinguish the two conditions and undertake further UV exposure, indicating that UV is a reinforcing stimulus. The relaxing and reinforcing effects of UV exposure contribute to tanning behavior in frequent tanners and should be explored in greater detail.