A tanning obsession may be more than just simple vanity.
By Donna Burch
I grew up in the 1980s, when my friends and I slathered ourselves in suntan oil (or worse, baby oil) and baked in the sun all day until golden brown. Those of us who were extremely dedicated to maintaining our tans would surround ourselves with panels of cardboard covered in aluminum foil, trying to magnify the sun’s rays. If mom wouldn’t drive us to the pool or lake, then we’d set up our creaky, plastic lounge chairs on the back deck and spend the afternoon smacking away the bees that were attracted to the sweet coconut scent of our suntan oil.
Back then, we didn’t know (or care) about sunscreen or SPFs or that we were setting ourselves up for a face full of wrinkles and age spots decades later.
We just knew we looked cuter in our shorts when we were tan.
Now, decades later, we wince when we think about those blistering sunburns that we gave ourselves. We look at every irregularly shaped mole with suspicion, wondering if it’s skin cancer and if the choices we made when we were young and stupid may end up costing us our lives.
And we especially worry when we hear our teenage daughters tell us they don’t want to wear sunscreen.
We have a reason to worry. Tanning isn’t what it used to be. More than likely our daughters aren’t spending hours lying out on the deck or by the pool. Their social calendars are far too busy for that!
Instead, they are regularly popping in for a quick visit to the neighborhood tanning salon, exposing their bodies to ultraviolet (UV) light many times stronger than the backyard sun. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, using a tanning bed before age 35 increases our lifetime risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, by 75 percent.
Worse still, Virginia’s laws do not protect young teens from their ignorance and poor decision-making. Legally, anyone 15 and older can use a tanning bed without parental permission.
Like us a generation ago, our daughters don’t know (or care about) the dangers of tanning. They just want to look good in their shorts.
But new research suggests that tanning isn’t just a relaxing, want-to-look-good pastime. In some people, it can actually become addictive.
Last summer, a study undertaken by Harvard Medical School suggested that exposure to UV light may release feel-good endorphins in the body – similar to those experienced by runners who talk about having a “runner’s high.” When UV light exposure was stopped, the study’s participants exhibited classic withdrawal symptoms: trembling, shaking and teeth-chattering.
The Harvard study used mice as its subjects, but the inference is that the same addictive tendency may be present in humans.
A 2004 study at Wake Forest University found that tanning bed users (this time, humans) could tell which tanning bed was emitting UV light and which wasn’t, and they consistently chose to lie in the one giving off UV light.
What these studies suggest is something we may have already intuitively known: Tanning can become an addictive behavior.
That explains why some people tan to the point that their skin looks like weathered, wrinkled leather, and yet they are still sitting on the beach.
Dr. Christine Rausch from Skin Surgery Center of Virginia in Henrico sees the harmful effects of tanning every day. As a dermatological surgeon, her job is to remove pieces of people’s noses, ears and arms after they’ve been diagnosed with skin cancer. She says she’s seeing more young women – even those in their 20s – show up at her office with skin cancer. And she’s seeing more skin cancers on body parts that are not normally exposed to the sun since tanning bed users typically tan in the nude.
“[Tanning] initially starts as an image-enhancing situation, and they do it to look good,” Rausch says. “There are some people who then become addicted to tanning despite knowing its dangers, and they continue to go into tanning beds.”
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will get some form of skin cancer during their lives. More than 73,000 people will be diagnosed this year with melanoma. Melanoma rates have steadily increased for the past 30 years.
If the threat of dying from skin cancer isn’t enough to stop us from tanning, maybe vanity will work: More than 90 percent of the visible changes commonly attributed to skin aging are caused by the sun, reports the Skin Cancer Foundation. In other words, tanning causes wrinkles and makes us look older than our years.
But despite these warnings, Rausch still has patients who refuse to stop going to the tanning salon. Shockingly, some even continue to tan after being diagnosed with skin cancer.
“You can become addicted to any activity or behavior,” explains Dr. Martin Buxton, chief of psychiatry at Chippenham and Johnston-Willis hospitals and medical director of Tucker Pavilion. “My sense of it is those people [who tan excessively] are getting somewhat of an endorphin rush, but it’s more of a coping mechanism and a self-identity issue. I think these people have almost a body dysmorphic situation where they think they look better tan and, if they’re not tan, they don’t think they look well.”
So how do we know when tanning has evolved from sheer vanity into an addiction?
“If someone is tanning to the point where they can’t control it, it interferes with work or social relationships, then it becomes problematic,” says Janet Loving, a program manager with Chesterfield Mental Health Support Services. “Addiction interferes with your ability to function. It’s like if your oxygen is cut off. It is that essential to the person. When you’ve crossed the line into addiction, you’ve lost that ability to control it.”
The signs of a tanning addiction might include lying about how often and how long we tan, spending money on tanning that we don’t have, hiding tanning from our family or friends, tanning despite a prior diagnosis of skin cancer and obsessing over our body’s appearance.
“It’s very analogous to smoking – the whole way people have a relationship with smoking,” Rausch explains. “It starts as an image. [People think they look cool or sophisticated when they smoke.] Like smoking, you don’t see the ill effects until years later. There is no incentive to change behavior because they are not dealing with the ill effects.”
As with other addictions, an addict will seldom admit there is a problem.
“It would be hard for them to recognize when enough is enough,” Buxton says.
Treatment is usually necessary to stop.