How to Break Your Addiction to Tanning

Tanning beds have been classified as carcinogens, but some will find the addiction hard to break.


Indoor tanning fanatics got some disheartening news last week when the International Agency for Research on Cancer moved tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category, calling them "carcinogenic to humans." That means that there's now enough evidence showing beyond a doubt that tanning beds can cause skin cancer and should be avoided. While tanning salons won't be outlawed, they could eventually have restrictions placed upon them: for example, prohibiting their use in those under 18. Unfortunately, all those warnings may not keep some folks—especially young women—away.

That's because indoor tanning can be a tough habit to break. Researchers have identified some specific causes for tanning addiction—or tanorexia. A 2006 study from Wake Forest University found that frequent tanners actually experience withdrawal symptoms—like nausea or jitteriness—when they stop using tanning beds. The ultraviolet light rays emitted by the beds appear to trigger the release of "feel good" brain chemicals called endorphins, says Wake Forest researcher Steven Feldman. Our bodies can become dependent on these endorphin surges—also produced from mild opiates or after an intense bout of running—which is why we feel lousy when we're deprived. "Those who tan infrequently for a wedding or other special occasion may not have a problem quitting, but others who do it regularly might," Feldman says.

Women in particular may have a hard time forgoing the tanning bed. They may be motivated to tan because of a desire to improve a perceived defect. "Some people who compulsively tan have body dysmorphic disorder, which is an under-recognized and pretty common disorder" and is defined as a distressing preoccupation with a small or nonexistent flaw in one's appearance, says Katharine Phillips, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University Medical School. Her research has shown that one quarter of those with BDD tan excessively to hid imperfections like acne or wrinkles.

For tanorexics, indoor tanning may be preferred because it yields that even tan—free of swimsuit lines—that they can't get from sunbathing outdoors. What's more, many women mistakenly think that indoor tanning is safer than the sun's natural radiation because it's less likely to cause a burn.

Certainly, radiation from both the sun and tanning salons can help the skin produce beneficial amounts of vitamin D, but the Food and Drug Administration says, "It doesn't take much sunlight to make all the vitamin D you can use—certainly far less than it takes to get a suntan." (Here's how much sun you need to get for vitamin D.)

Since there's no compelling reason to hit the tanning salon and it involves a serious health risk, you need to find safer alternatives. Self-tanning creams and sprays, which use chemicals to tint the skin, can give you that bronzed look without any skin cancer risk, but they won't provide the endorphin rush. (You still need to apply sunscreen to protect yourself from getting a burn.) If you're feeling irritable and need a mood lift, get active for 45 minutes by running or taking a spinning class, suggests Feldman. Or cut back gradually on tanning if going cold turkey leaves you feeling down in the dumps. If you simply can't function normally without that perfect tan, you may have BDD. You could benefit from antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches you strategies to gradually cut back on tanning. "It's very treatable," says Phillips, "but you can't tell someone to simply stop tanning." Here's how to find a referral for professional help.

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