Excessive tanning, obsessive tanning, tanorexia, tanning addiction, whatever you call it, tanning too frequently and for too long is dangerous. Intentionally exposing your skin to ultraviolet (UV) light, either under the sun or in a tanning bed, doesn’t just cause you to wrinkle prematurely, it causes cancer. This comes as no surprise to most people. We all know that this kind of exposure can be deadly. So why do so many people, particularly young women, continue to over-tan? New research is providing some answers.
The Risks of Tanning
Maybe a handful of people can claim ignorance when tanning too much. Most of us know better, but for those who don’t, the Skin Cancer Foundation would like you to know the risks you take when you don’t protect yourself from the sun and other sources of UV light. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country. Furthermore, it is the most preventable. Exposure to UV light can be avoided, and it is what causes most cases of skin cancer. Wear sunscreen with an SPF between 30 and 45, wear protective clothing and a hat when outdoors, and avoid the sun in the middle of the day.
Because most people know the risks of tanning and exposure to UV light, and because the incidence of tanning and over-tanning continues to increase, researchers propose that a type of addiction may be at work. A common characteristic of addiction is continuing the habit in spite of known dangers. If people who know better continue to tan, do they then have an addiction? There is a strong case to be made that many tanners do have an addictive disorder.
First, researchers have examined the motivations behind excessive tanning. A major motivation is related to appearance. Most tanning enthusiasts want to have darker skin. They feel better with tanned skin. Other motivations run deeper. Tanning may enhance the mood because of exposure to light. It may help tanning addicts relax and socialize with others.
Another study investigated the impact of UV light on mice to determine if the light itself is addictive. Researchers found that by exposing mice to UV light every day, the animals experienced boosts in endorphins in the blood. Endorphins are natural chemicals that make you feel good. If UV light makes you feel good, you are likely to come back for more. The mice in the study even exhibited symptoms of withdrawal when the researchers took the light away.
In another study, researchers interviewed hundreds of college students who participated in tanning. Nearly a third of these young people showed signs of having an addiction. Those who tanned obsessively were also at greater risk for such mental illnesses as obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder.
All evidence seems to point to the fact that tanning addiction is a genuine disorder. In spite of the known risks, some people seem unable to stop using tanning booths or spending time under the sun in search of tanned skin. It is important to educate people, not just about the physical dangers of tanning, but also about the possibility of getting hooked on the activity. For those who just want to look tan, self-tanners and spray tanning are good alternatives.