Do You Have Tanorexia??

Does the thought of a fading tan-line make your palms get sweaty? Do you have the local tanning salon on speed dial? If so, you may have tanorexia, or an addiction to tanning. Even though tanning has been linked with an increased risk of skin cancer, premature skin aging and melanoma, millions of people still feel compelled to tan. A number of celebrities have readily admitted their addiction to tanning:

George Hamilton (actor):

After a few days of ritualised sunning, I noticed that the girls were beginning to react to me. It was subtle at first – a nod here, a turned head there, a wink from a cutie passing by – but something was definitely beginning to happen.

Suntanning was going to be to me what the phone booth, funny blue suit and cape were to Superman. Without a tan I was just another pale face in the crowd. With one, I could do some pretty amazing things.

Rebecca Minkoff (Fashion Designer):

I so love tanning. And I don’t care what everyone says about the sun and skin cancer– if I don’t sit in the sun when it’s nice out, I get really depressed.

Snooki (Reality “star”)

“I would put tanning beds in everybody’s home.”



For the past few years, scientists have been finding increasing evidence that, for some, tanning may truly be an addiction, similar to drug or alcohol addiction. In 2006, researchers from Wake Forest University showed that endorphins (chemicals in the brain that act as like opiate pain relievers) are produced by exposure to UV light (either through sun or tanning booth exposure). According to Dr. Steven Feldman, co-author of the research, “This might explain why some people appear to be hooked on sunbathing and why frequent users of tanning beds say they experience a positive mood change or are more relaxed after a session.” What was even more surprising was that when they blocked the UV light (without the participants knowing it was being blocked), some people actually exhibited withdrawal symptoms- nausea and jitteriness.

This week, a study from the UT Southwestern confirms that, when frequent tanners are exposed to UV light, the parts of the brain associated with reward and addiction light up on a special brain scan. This indicates increased blood flow to those areas. If the UV waves are blocked, those brain areas become dimmer, without an increase in blood flow. Lead investigator, Dr. Bryon Adinoff, says:

“Using tanning beds has rewarding effects in the brain so people may feel compelled to persist in the behavior even though it’s bad for them… The implication is, ‘If it’s rewarding, then could it also be addictive?’ It’s an important question in the field.”

SO, are you a tanorexic? Do you know someone who is? Tell us about it.

Note: The FDA just approved a new drug, Zelboraf from Roche, for treating melanoma. Can tanorexics take any comfort in this?

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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