Seasonal Affective Disorder


Published on February 20, 2013

During the dark days of winter, many head to tanning salons as the solution for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a.k.a. winter depression which is believed to affect approximately 15 million Americans. Tanning salons tout their services as a treatment for SAD, though the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) they produce is not a component of light therapy, the most effective treatment.

“People often think of sunbathing as the antidepressant essence of light exposure. Wrong! Light therapy acts through the eyes, and requires visible light, not UV,” says Michael Terman, PhD, Director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City.

Since UV light is not a treatment for SAD, those affected with this disease are only putting their health at risk for skin cancer by visiting a tanning salon. New high-pressure sunlamps emit as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure. People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.

Most SAD specialists recommend obtaining light via a light box rather than visiting a tanning salon. Light boxes are portable, visible light sources which provide up to 10,000 lux of illumination -- 10 to 25 times as bright as ordinary lighting and “equivalent to outdoor light about forty minutes after sunrise,” according to Terman. Most patients use light boxes early in the morning, for 15 to 60 minutes.

What to Look For in a Light Box:

  • Choose a Light Box With 10,000 Lux of Illumination. Light boxes offering fewer lux are not as effective.
  • Use a UV Filter. Most light boxes use fluorescent bulbs, which emit a small amount of UV radiation. Your light box should have a UV filter or diffusing screen to protect your skin and eyes.
  • Opt for Soft, White Lights. Full spectrum lights produce greater amounts of blue light (which can harm the eyes) and UV radiation.