Obsessed with Tanning? Why It’s a Problem

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Ah summer! The time we slather on the sun tan lotion and spend hours in the hot sun. But as this redhead knows, tanning is a problem. Years from now, your skin will thank if you are cautious and exercise care.

Worried about that pale look? Consider Taylor Swift and Nicole Kidman–two beauties who do not drink the tanning Kool-Aid! Can we just thank them now for making pale skin chic?

I know. We like being in the sun. But melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and can kill you. According to the Mayo Clinic, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases your risk of developing melanoma. Melanoma is increasing in females age group (15-29) more so than males thanks to the pressure from media to have that summer glow. And indoor tanning increases the risk of melanoma by 75%.

For some people, an obsession with tanning can be dangerous. Ever heard of “tanorexic?” I treat anorexics, but this is different. A “tanorexic” is a person who ignores the health risks (skin cancers such as malignant melanoma). They may need intervention to stop because of habitual tanning. Tanorexia is not a DSM 5 (the diagnostic manual for psychiatry disorders) diagnosis but does act like a behavioral addiction. According to psychiatry professor, Dr. Bryon Adinoff at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, tanning can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol.

So, I went to a tanning salon, sat in the lobby and watched people come and go for about 15 minutes. I know that was a little weird, but I wanted to see who goes to tanning places. And I wanted to know why.

Most of the customers I saw were teenage girls, but there was a steady stream of older women who came in for their regular appointments. The older women had very wrinkled skin, so I didn’t understand why they would want to add more damage to their already damaged skin? I had to ask. One lady said it made her feel good, another liked the look of the tan because she felt beautiful, another says she’s addicted. I think I found a few tanorexics!

In his study, Dr. Adinoff discovered that the ultraviolet radiation that we constantly try to block when we put on sunscreens, not only damages skin, but also turns on a reward switch in the brain like a cigarette does for a smoker and alcohol does for the alcoholic.

Dr. Adinoff divided tanners into two groups. One group tanned but the ultraviolet radiation was blocked. After the tanning session, this group was asked if they wanted to keep tanning. They indicated YES. They had the desire to continue. The other group was exposed to the ultraviolet radiation. The reward centers in their brains lit up like addicts. When asked if they wanted to continue to tan, they said NO because they had their fix. Like the smoker who takes a hit of nicotine to satisfy the craving, the ultraviolet radiation exposed group had had enough for the moment.

The thinking here is that indoor tanning can stimulate reward centers in the brain, making it difficult for people to stop. The UV light may be the rewarding property that prompts tanners to keep going even when it is unhealthy, and they are at risk.

Despite all the warnings about the harmful rays one is exposed to in tanning beds, people (around 30 million a year) continue to indoor tan. How many of those are addicted? We don’t know but don’t be surprised if you see a Tanning Anonymous group at some point.

For those of you spending hours in the sun looking for that tanning glow, slather up to protect your skin. Use at least 30 SPF or higher to protect your skin. Reapply every 2 to 3 hours. Remind yourself that someone dies from melanoma every hour of the day. Now, that should give you pause and be willing to use the protection. Then, get you to the dermatologist for a skin check. I do them every 6 months. Early detection makes a difference.

The good news is that tanning addiction or tanorexia can be treated but the damage to your skin caused by UV radiation is irreversible.

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