Can Excessive Tanning Be an Addiction?

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Remember the story of the New Jersey “Tanning Mom”? The news item was not her obviously over-tanned face, but allegations that she was putting her 6-year-old daughter at risk by subjecting her to a tanning salon. (Latest news is that she took a challenge to give up tanning for a month and is now “practically pale.”)

When stories like this happen, I’m often asked if tanning can be an addiction. Every once in a while in my practice a patient, usually a young woman between age 18 and 25,  comes to me because people in her life are concerned about her excessive use of tanning beds. The patient is not concerned about her tanning behavior. She seems to regard it as not her issue but her parents’ or boyfriends’.

Tanning Activates Brain’s Pleasure Center

Patients I’ve seen who are habitual tanners appear to be compulsively seeking a tan. As it with other other addictions, people continue the behavior despite the knowledge of risks–skin cancer, premature aging, wrinkles. At this point in time, 30 million tanners use indoor salons, and a percentage of them may be, or are in danger of becoming addicted. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are activated when people are using a drug or other substance. It appears that those people who seek excessive exposure to UV rays may be activating those same pleasure centers.  It has been reported that when addictive tanners are deprived of UV radiation, many become jittery, displaying behavior similar to people who are in need of a “fix.”

So we now have a situation with the so-called “tanorexic.” Like the woman with anorexia who believes she is still fat even though others see her as emaciated, so the slavish tanner, feels pale and doesn’t recognize he skin color as orange and over-tanned.

How to Help a Tanning Addiction

So, if you or a loved one thinks that you may have a “tanning addiction,” what can you do?

  • Recognize your behavior is a problem. This is often the most important first step. Many people think they can kick any substance abuse or addictive problem on their own, but that rarely works. Discussing the problem with a supportive and understanding friend or family member is your best option for getting help. For teens or young adults who can’t talk to their parents, you might want to approach a school counselor, relative or family physician. You may find it helpful to contact a trained professional psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.
  • Tell your friends about your decision to stop tanning.  Your true friend will respect your decision and give you support as you stop this addiction.
  • Ask your friends or family to be available when you need them. You may find it helpful if you reach out rather than just relying on your old habit of compulsively seeking UV rays.
  • Remind yourself that having an addiction doesn’t make a person bad or weak. If you fall back into old patterns, talk to someone as soon as possible. If you or a friend is battling a tanning addiction you may need lots of encouragement and praise from family and friends to help maintain your motivation.

Photo by  leyla_arsan via Flickr

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