Connection Between Excessive Tanning And Mental Health
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02-25-14 Category: Mental Health

Many people want a tanned, sun-kissed look, thinking it will make them appear healthier and more attractive. When studies began to show that exposure to sunlight without the use of sunscreen increases the risk of skin cancer, some people turned to alternatives, like spray tans and sun beds, to achieve their desired look.

However, recent studies have shown that artificial tanning can still cause cancer and other health problems. Any type of tanning can cause health problems, yet many people still sit in the sun or in a tanning bed in order to become bronzed despite being fully aware of the risks.

Although many of those who tan stop once they have achieved glowing, sun-kissed skin, some people continue to tan to an excess. One infamous example is the “tanning mom” who stepped into the media spotlight recently after being arrested for reportedly bringing her 5-year-old daughter with her into a tanning bed. She brought some attention to tanning addiction, which is not yet an official diagnosable condition but has been given the slang term “tanorexia.”

Can You Become Addicted To Tanning?

Over the past few years, researchers have begun to look into the possibility of people being addicted to tanning. One study showed that the UV light involved in tanning, either naturally with the sun or using artificial light, causes an endorphin release that is similar to the effect of drugs and alcohol, so it can be similarly addictive.

Another study looked at the connection between the neurological reward and reinforcement trigger involved with tanning. A more recent study has looked into the connection between mental health disorders and tanning addiction or dependency, rather than just the possibility of addiction.

Tanning Addiction And Psychopathology

A paper titled “Tanning Addiction and Psychopathology: Further Evaluation of Anxiety Disorders and Substance Abuse,” which will be published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and is currently available online, reviewed excessive tanning to see whether it should be classified as an addiction.

The researchers, Lisham Ashrafioun, a Bowling Green State University (BGSU) doctoral student in psychology, and Dr. Erin Bonar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center and a BGSU alumna, surveyed people about their tanning habits and associated feelings in order to see if they also met the criteria for body dysmorphic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Mental Illness And Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental illness associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with BDD become obsessed about an imagined or inflated physical flaw. They will engage in behavior to try to alter their physical features, such as excessive cosmetic surgery, but do not feel satisfied. They isolate themselves because they believe people will ridicule them for their perceived flaw.

OCD is a mental disorder where a person becomes obsessed with something and engages in compulsive behavior in order to try to reduce the anxiety associated with the obsession. For example, a person with OCD might become obsessed with germs or safety and have to go through certain rituals to assure themselves that they are safe, such as excessively rechecking a lock or washing their hands. This behavior disrupts daily life, relationships, and work.

Study On Tanning Addiction

For the study on tanning addiction, 533 BGSU students who regularly tanned were surveyed using a Tanning-DSM questionnaire, a modified version of the substance abuse criteria found in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and a Tanning-CAGE questionnaire, a modified version of the CAGE alcohol screener

A person who answered yes to at least three of the eight criteria on the Tanning-DSM fell into the tanning dependent category. Those who answered yes to two of the four questions on the Tanning-CAGE were labeled as having problematic tanning. Problematic tanning is engaging in behavior that is harmful to the person. Tanning dependence is when a person is physically or mentally dependent upon tanning.

Creating A Dependence On Tanning

The researchers found that 31 percent of those responding met the criteria for tanning dependence, and 12 percent for problematic tanning. Those who had tanned at least nine times in the past 30 days had the greatest risk for meeting the criteria for both problematic tanning and tanning dependence.

They also screened the participants for the possibility of mental health disorders, specifically BDD and OCD. They found that being female and having positive results for BDD and OCD were significantly associated with tanning dependence. For problematic tanning, only screening positively for OCD was related in a significant way. The researchers also found that while BDD appeared to be linked to tanning dependence, OCD was more closely related to problematic tanning.

Tanning May Be An Addiction

The researchers concluded that tanning may be an addiction, but there are a significant number of people who excessively tan and have underlying mental conditions. For example, some individuals may engage in tanning due to obsessive compulsive behavior or to decrease symptoms of OCD.

There were some limitations to the study. The rates of positive screens for OCD and BDD in their sample were higher than other college samples and the national prevalence estimates. They also noted that the Tanning-CAGE and Tanning DSM may lead to an overestimation of rates. However, this study still provides some potential evidence to support continued research into whether excessive tanning may be an addiction, as well as highlighting the underlying or co-occurring conditions contributing to excessive tanning.

Moving Forward

Knowing more about why people engage in this behavior could help doctors and health professionals talk with patients about tanning, especially those who do not alter their behavior even after being informed of the health risks. Looking at the mental health of the patient might help to find more efficient ways to discuss the behavior with the patient and find a way to stop the destructive behavior. Developing a screening tool for dermatologists and primary care physicians to use could help these professionals recognize when a person who excessively tans might have underlying mental health problems, whether OCD, BDD, or tanning addiction, if it becomes a disorder.

Sovereign Health Group offers treatment for mental health conditions, including BDD and OCD, as well as addiction, eating disorders, and dual diagnosis. Our programs provide state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatment that treats all underlying and co-occurring conditions to reduce the risk of relapse. We are Joint Commissioned accredited and dually licensed to treat mental health and addiction. You can learn more about our programs here, or you can call our Admissions team at 866-264-9778.

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