Tanning Addiction: Possible Reasons and How to Recover

Do people who have a tanning addiction (sometimes now called tanorexia) just want to look more attractive?

Tanning can start out that way, of course—wanting that nice glow. But, as with other process addictions, additional contributing factors can then complicate things and turn one’s goal upside down and one’s not-unhealthy behavior into something more compulsive.

A woman who’s been studying tanning behaviors for over 10 years, psychologist Sherry Pagoto, University of Massachusetts Medical School, gives some common reasons one might overtan:

  • a desire to escape reality
  • relaxation
  • trying to cope with depression
  • getting a quick fix of endorphins

Further quoting Pagoto, Jessica Firger, Everyday Health, elaborates on the development of a tanning addiction:

‘It’s more about medicating the mood,’ said Pagoto. ‘Some people do that by overeating, some people will smoke cigarettes, some people will do that by tanning.’ She said much like drinking or smoking, tanning can start out as a social activity but then may turn into an addiction. And for many young women, the addiction is also driven by peer pressure, she said.

Psychologist Rosalind Dorlen, writing on Your Mind Your Body, indicates some possible costs to overtanning as well as one significant result if thwarted:

As 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…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.’

Robin L. Hornung, MD, MPH, and Solmaz Poorsattar, on the website SkinCancer.org, note that the addiction can be both physical and psychological in nature. Furthermore, those who have started tanning before age 13 and those who’ve tanned most frequently have the hardest time quitting it.

Tanning addiction is also sometimes part of having body dysmorphia. According to Katharine Phillips, noted expert on Body Dsymorphic Disorder, Brown University Medical School, believes one-fourth of those with BDD get involved in excessive tanning from trying to hide such perceived flaws as acne or wrinkles (USNews.com).

In addition, other types of psychiatric issues, including substance abuse and anxiety conditions, can be factors in excessive tanning behavior (Medscape).

How Do You Know If It’s a Problem For You?

A modified version of the CAGE questionnaire (commonly used to assess chemical addiction) has found that many frequent tanners meet the criteria for a “UV light substance-related disorder.”

Any yeses to the following CAGE questions may be significant, and two yeses would warrant further assessment for addiction:

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your tanning?
  2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your tanning?
  3. Have you ever felt style guilty  about tanning?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed to tan first thing in the morning (Eye-opener)?

How to Manage a Tanning Addiction

First off, strategies used for other addictions might be effective—having support of family and friends, for instance, or following other guidelines often prescribed in 12-step programs or therapy.

What do the above-cited experts say? While Dorlen uses cognitive-behavioral techniques and treats such underlying problems as depression, Pagoto is more focused on finding healthier habits for individuals to adopt in place of tanning. As she tells Everyday Health: “The research on the benefits of both exercise and massage on mood is quite strong so we think that if we can get tanners ‘hooked’ on these behaviors, they may drift away from tanning as a way to unwind and reduce stress.”

Last, SkinCancer.org recommends:

  • switch to self-tanning creams and sprays
  • for endorphins, add physical exercise
  • avoid high-risk relapse situations (going with a friend to a tanning booth, for example)

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