Tanning Addiction: Signs, Risks & Treatment Options

How and Why Tanning Can Become Addictive

Tanning has occurred since the dawn of humanity, but technologies now allow individuals to get a tan year-round. And it turns out tanners are getting more than just a glow from the tanning beds — they’re getting what could be considered a “high.”

Scientists worldwide have been studying the phenomenon of tanning addiction and have concluded that there’s something exceptional about the ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun and tanning beds. When UV radiation penetrates the skin, the skin’s reaction is to become darker. Simultaneously, the proteins that are produced trigger our pleasure centers in the brain. This means we end up feeling a rush of positive emotions along with our tan — and for some, that rush is very compelling.

Tanning Withdrawal Symptoms

To prove even further that tanning is addictive, researchers have published studies indicating that when people who tan regularly are forced to stop tanning or are exposed to tanning bed light without UV radiation, they exhibit withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include tremors and shaking, which may seem more suited for addictions to opiates or alcohol than tanning. Yet the effects have been well-documented, indicating just how important it is to get help for tanning addiction by turning to professionals.

Tanning Addiction by the Numbers

How many individuals suffer from tanning addictions, and are there any tanning addiction statistics? It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how many men and women of all ages are addicted to tanning. However, it’s important to note that in the United States, between 1994 and 2014, the diagnosis of nonmelanoma skin cancers increased by 77 percent. That’s a clear indication that we’re getting more sunlight, but we’re not wearing sunscreen to protect ourselves from the UV rays. Plus, the tanning bed industry seems to be booming — as do the practices of dermatologists who are frustrated by the increasing number of skin cancer cases that keep cropping up.

According to the latest cancer-related statistics, about one out of every five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70. This disease kills two people per hour in the United States. These facts are sobering and show just how deadly a tanning addiction can be.

Tanning: Still Given the Thumbs up by Society

Our society has consistently given tanning the thumbs up, even though statistics show it’s dangerous. This helps produce more and more people who find it impossible to ignore the subtle marketing indicating that having “a little color” looks healthier than being pale. Though spray tans help achieve a tan look, they do nothing to the body psychologically. Therefore, true tanning addicts still turn to the sun or the tanning bed to achieve their desired results.

What Are the Effects of Tanning Addiction?

The effects associated with tanning addiction range from the physical to the psychological:

  • The desire to become a darker skin color overshadows the risks of exposure to UV radiation.
  • Tanning may become a hobby, with some tanning addicts using tanning beds almost daily.
  • Despite warnings from their doctors, those addicted to tanning feel the need to keep going back to the tanning bed.
  • Money may be spent on tanning rather than life essentials, such as housing, food, or utilities.
  • Tanning becomes more important than relationships and may be a substitute for social activities.
  • When the tanning addict cannot get to the tanning bed, they feel depressed and shaken.
  • Even if the tanning addict is teased about their excessive tanning, they refuse to give it up.
  • Tanners lose their jobs because they would rather spend time at the beach or in the tanning bed than doing their work.
  • Those with a tanning addiction may make excuses as to why they have to go to the tanning bed or may sneak away to a tanning bed to get a “fix.”
  • Excessive tanners’ skin will begin to get a leathery look as the collagen and elastin are broken down.
  • Tanners may develop warning signs of skin cancer, such as suspicious-looking moles.

These effects should be taken seriously, as they can all lead to serious and deadly problems. And parents who are addicted to tanning could set the stage for their children to be addicted to tanning, too.

Signs and Symptoms of Tanning Addiction

If you’re worried and wondering if you may need help with a tanning addiction, look through these common tanning addiction signs:

  • You will do anything to get a tan. On a sunny day, you’ll sit outside for hours without wearing any skin protection. If it’s a cloudy day, you’ll head to the tanning bed.
  • You visit several tanning bed facilities because you don’t want them to know you’re tanning more often than they allow you to tan.
  • You have been tanning since you were very young and consider it a part of your lifestyle.
  • When you can’t tan, you get agitated.
  • You are female (tanning addiction is seen more often in females than in males, making females at higher risk for developing this condition).
  • You have been diagnosed with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
  • After sitting in the sun or going to the tanning bed, you feel euphoric.
  • You have lied to friends and family about how often you’re tanning or about using sunscreen when you tan.
  • When your tan starts to fade, you feel decreased self-confidence and start to hate how your body looks.
  • You have avoided social situations so you can tan.
  • You have moved to a warmer climate, so you have better access to tanning year-round.
  • Physicians have warned you that you need to stop tanning.
  • Your friends and family make fun of you because you have a tan all year.
  • You have spent money you didn’t really have on tanning.
  • You have tried to justify your tanning to yourself and/or others.
  • You have considered purchasing your own tanning bed to have 24/7 access to a source of tanning.
  • You have an addictive personality and may have faced addiction before (e.g., addiction to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, technology, and love).
  • You feel like you cannot stop tanning. When you’ve tried in the past, you always end up tanning again.
    Remember, these signs are indicators something isn’t right. That means it’s time to get treatment. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of a tanning addiction here.

Treatment for Tanning Addiction

Treatment for tanning addiction is as multi-faceted – but ultimately doable – as with treatment for any other kind of addiction. Usually, it starts with the tanning addict coming forward and seeking help from a trained therapist or professional who has experience with tanning addictions.

One of the issues related to treating tanning addiction is that sunlight cannot be avoided. We’re constantly exposed to a bit of sunlight in our day-to-day activities. For a tanning addict, that slight exposure can be compelling in a way that does not affect someone who isn’t driven to tan. This is the reason tanning addicts may find help in intensive therapy to discover why they feel the need to tan.

The underlying causes of tanning addiction will always vary based on your individual personality and background but may include the following:

  • As a child, you enjoyed tanning with a parent or loved one. When you tan now, you think of that person, bringing back fond memories.
  • You were abused, and tanning helped you cope with the emotions by changing how your body felt and looked.
  • You have been struggling with body dysmorphia, a condition whereby you see your body in a way others do not.
  • Your parents, family, and friends said you were unattractive because you had very pale skin.
  • You associate dark skin with health, especially since dark skin hides minor flaws such as wrinkles.
  • You crave the sensation of having warm skin, and you may even enjoy getting burned by direct sunlight.
  • You started tanning when you discovered it helped you camouflage the effects of acne, such as scars.
  • You feel your self-worth is directly associated with your appearance.
  • You like the attention you get from having a dark tan, especially during the wintertime.
  • You tend to do everything in excess, whether tanning or preparing for a meeting. Your all-or-nothing personality drives you.

Another reason for tanning addiction could be embedded in your genes. British scientists isolated the gene called PTCHD2. This gene appears to be found in those who are tanning dependent or addicted to tanning but not in those who are immune to tanning’s draw. More research is being planned on PTCHD2, which may eventually help people who have difficulty overcoming tanning addiction.

Regardless of why you started tanning, you can absolutely get assistance. Many treatment providers for tanning addiction are well-versed in getting you to a point where you can successfully overcome this addiction. However, it’s important to remember that you must be cautious not to relapse.

Paying for Tanning Addiction Treatment

Are you concerned about paying for tanning addiction treatment? You aren’t alone. Many people choose not to seek treatment in the hopes that they can tackle their tanning addictions by themselves. This is extremely difficult, however, since you are not objective and cannot give a third-party opinion.

Some insurance providers are willing to pay for a portion of addiction treatment, so it’s worth your while to contact your carrier. When investigating tanning addiction treatment centers, you should ask if they have experience working with your insurance provider. You may even find some facilities to help you learn about financing options available to qualified persons.

It’s essential that you don’t hesitate to get help for your tanning addiction just because you think it will cost too much. Tanning can cost a lot of money in the long run, especially if you develop skin cancer. Treatment is an investment that will pay back dividends for decades.

Prevention of Tanning Addiction Relapse

A relapse is when an addict turns back to the addiction that drove them into treatment. If you have a tanning addiction, you probably can never moderate your desire to tan. This means you have to be aware on a daily basis of any triggers that may lead you to want to tan and then avoid them.

Some of the common triggers of tanning addiction relapse include:

  • Going to the beach for vacation. It’s challenging for a tanning addict to put on sunscreen and not stay in the sun for several hours.
  • Being invited by friends to go to the tanning bed in advance of a special occasion. Many brides request that the bridesmaids in their parties get tans before the wedding. If you have a tanning addiction, you cannot participate in this type of event.
  • Working in a tanning salon. Having access to tanning beds is too much of a temptation. Should you work in a tanning facility, you will probably need to find another job.
  • Taking a job that involves a lot of work outdoors. Since being in direct sunlight and UV rays gives you a “high,” you would be wise not to work outdoors.
  • Having someone in your life who enjoys tanning and may also be a tanning addict. Get that person’s help if possible, but don’t allow yourself to be drawn back into your addictive behaviors just because they insist you join in a tanning session.

If you feel like you need constant support, why not join a tanning addiction group? There may not be one in your area, but a local treatment facility leader should be able to direct you to groups that will help you keep from relapsing.

What Happens If a Tanning Addiction Relapse Occurs?

Even if you take every precaution, a relapse of your tanning addiction could happen. At this point, you should take several steps:

  • Acknowledge you had a relapse. This is normal for those with addictions, and it isn’t an indication that you are a failure.
  • Calm down, and don’t beat yourself up mentally. Tell yourself this is a learning experience.
  • Find out why you had your relapse. Was there something that triggered you to tan? What was the trigger? How can you avoid it from now on?
  • Contact your treatment facility provider. If you’ve stopped getting treatment or stopped going to therapy, it’s a good idea to start again.

A relapse isn’t an ending to your treatment. It’s simply a phase some tanning addicts face on their journeys to recovering from tanning addiction.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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