The Dark Truth Behind Tanning Addiction


Lately, I’ve come to think of the sun as a bad relationship. First we’re supposed to stay away from it for our own health. Then we think about jumping back in for short-term visits – just a few minutes a day can’t hurt, right? Next we start questioning our use of protection. And now, for some of us, new information reveals that we’re never able to really say goodbye. Yes, sun equals bad boyfriend!

Nonetheless, people are progressively tanning. Flip on MTV, and you’ve got the so-called Jersey Shore kids (aren’t they all well into their 20s?) sporting skin hues something akin to pumpkin orange. But it turns out that some over-zealous tanners just may not be able to help themselves. New evidence shows that tanning may be as addictive as any substance – and that the medical community is considering “tanning addiction” as a new diagnostic category.

For many of us, tanning addiction rings true. I had a friend in high school, let’s call her Jessica, who proudly sported a year-long tan. After a trip to the beach, she came back with a sun burn so bad she had to wrap her blistered forearms in gauze. Before the scabs were even healed, Jessica was laying out in her backyard hoping to turn her newly-pink skin back into a Hawaiian Tropic glow. Why? Because she felt like she “had” to be tanned.

Now it turns out Jessica’s need may have been beyond her control. As the New York Times reports, this year alone, 3.5 million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer. And it is not likely due to a lack of education about the dangers of UV exposure. A new study from the Skin Cancer Foundation Journal shows that “tanners also report mood enhancement, relaxation and socialization.” They also found that frequent tanners “showed signs of both physiological and psychological dependence.” In other words, some people react to tanning the ways addicts react to alcohol and drugs.

Dr. Richard F. Wagner Jr., a dermatologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, has worked on diagnosing tanning addiction. He modified a list of questions used to determine alcohol addiction in terms of tanning. These questions form an acronym called CAGE. As the NY Times reports, these questions are: Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your tanning? Have people annoyed you by criticizing your tanning? Have you ever felt guilty about tanning? Have you ever felt you needed to tan first thing in the morning – as an eye opener? Answer yes to any of these questions, and you may have an addiction to tanning. Dr. Wagner further points out that the endorphins released from tanning are likely what causes people to over-bake. Other researchers have found evidence that frequent tanners react to “lack of tanning” much as addicts react to withdraw.

So will tanning soon be regarded as an addictive substance warranting regulation? Yes, if the medical community can make it so. What can the rest of us do? Spread the word of awareness – and keep our own skin tones from matching up with Halloween.

For further reading: When Tanning Turns into an Addiction

Image: psycherika

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.