"Tanorexics": Fans of the Tan

Simple sun worship or is your teen addicted to tanning? How you can tell and what you can do about it.

Jim Williams

HealthKey.com contributor

May 25, 2010


If you're the parent of a teen, you don't need to be told these are strange creatures, these pre-adults. In this day-and-age, there are so many influences on teens: social pressures, anorexia, drugs, alcohol and nicotine. But now there's one more to add to the list: tanorexia, an addiction to tanning.

In the scheme of things, tanning seems innocent enough. But sobering statistics concerning the rise in skin cancer can cast a dark cloud over simple sun worship. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly all of the 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S. are considered to be sun-related. Even scarier is that melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, accounted for more than 68,000 cases of skin cancer in 2009, resulting in 11,590 deaths.

As it relates to teens, the University of Michigan Health System reports that approximately 80 percent of sun exposure and damage occurs before the age of 18. And a study published in the "Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine" noted that 40 percent of white adolescent females ages 13 to 19 had used a tanning booth at least once.

Why the Tan?

One might think vanity is what drives teens' need to bronze up, but that might not be the case. In a 2008 study by the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, researchers found that one in four teens show signs of tanorexia. The study used the same framework that defines substance addictions. The researchers hypothesize that tanning may release endorphins in the brain, which potentially bring about a feeling of well being similar to the "runner's high" people get after exercising.

Dr. Leslie Baumann, author of "The Skin Type Solution," writes that a teen's desire to tan has an evolutionary explanation--tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors may have developed this response to encourage adequate sun exposure in order to get adequate levels of vitamin D.

What To Do

Like any addiction, communication and education are critical. Talk to your teen and explain the dangers of getting too much sun. Monitor their activities, i.e., are they going to a tanning booth? A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended recently that the agency consider requiring teenagers get parental consent before using a tanning bed or even banning the use of tanning beds from teenage customers.

If they still want to get that tanned look, suggest sunless tanning products, which include moisturizers, brush-on powders and sprays that gradually add a tan to the skin that washes off over time. These products use a color additive that darkens the skin by reacting with amino acids in the dead cells on the skin surface.

Bottom line, parents: Don't be in the dark about tanning!

For more information visit the Food and Drug Administration Web site.