The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used by clinicians, researchers, policy…
Tanorexia Is a Real (Dangerous) Disease
Last year, the New Jersey mom who allegedly took her 5-year-old tanning, and who showed up on the news with skin that resembled old leather, helped to bring a potential addiction to the forefront of the public’s mind. Dubbed “tanorexia,” the media and experts alike described the condition as an addiction to repeated tanning, usually artificially in a tanning bed.
Unfortunately, what the media and social media users joked about and made light of is a very serious matter. This woman is destroying her skin, and she has a real problem with her compulsion. Without help, she could die from her behaviors and pass the habit on to her impressionable young daughter. And while she was a media sensation that shone bright before fading back into obscurity, the problem this woman brought to light is still an issue for many people, especially young women.
The Dangers of Tanning
Purists would say that the only true addictions are those to substances, like drugs and alcohol. These are things that alter your brain chemistry and slowly destroy your health. Tanning may be a behavior rather than a substance, but it poses a serious risk, just like substance abuse. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common form of the disease in the U.S. The non-profit lists artificial tanning beds as the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer.
Regularly using a tanning bed to maintain browned skin year round is, therefore, extremely dangerous. The ultraviolet radiation produced by the tanning bed is what darkens (and damages) the skin. The radiation damages your skin cells and it is this damage over time that causes cancer. The more exposure you have to the radiation, the more damage you experience and the greater your likelihood of developing skin cancer.
The danger and risks associated with tanning can be seen in statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation. They also demonstrate the link between tanning and the demographic that most indulges in it: young women. Over the last four decades, the incidence of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, rose 800 percent among young women, compared to 400 percent in young men. While in the general population, men are at a slightly greater risk for melanoma than women, among people 18 to 39, women are at a much greater risk.
Tanning as Addiction
Believe it or not, there is real, scientific evidence that tanning can become an addiction. Research has shown that tanning causes a release of endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals that relieve pain and give you a high. This means that although we are talking about a behavior, it can affect you in similar ways to a substance.
Studies also show that people who regularly use tanning beds experience the same symptoms of physical dependency as drug addicts and alcoholics. They feel better after tanning and eventually begin to crave it. They also build up a tolerance, needing longer and longer tanning sessions to get the same good feeling. Withdrawal also occurs when a tanning addict cannot get to the bed for more artificial sunlight.
The culprit seems to be the ultraviolet light. In one study, tanning addicts used two different types of beds; one had a standard light with ultraviolet radiation, while the other used light bulbs that gave off no ultraviolet radiation. Overwhelmingly, the users cited a preference for the tanning bed with the ultraviolet radiation.
Future research into the condition sometimes jokingly referred to as “tanorexia” should be able to answer more questions about this particular addiction. It is important to learn why young women are so vulnerable and how to help them avoid and overcome the addiction. Although it may seem silly, tanorexia is very real and very serious.
The compulsion to use tanning beds is causing a generation of women to submit themselves to a process that is known to be harmful. Just as drug addicts use in the face of obvious dangers, these young women are blatantly harming themselves.
If you have a teen or even a younger daughter who is thinking of tanning, have a serious talk with her about the dangers and the risks. Prevention and education are the best ways to keep girls safe.