Since I received a great response to my blog on tanning and teens, I wanted to add a little to that topic.

Ever heard of “tanorexic?” I treat anorexics but this was a new one for me. A “tanorexic” is a person who ignores the health risks (skin cancers such as malignant melanoma) and may need intervention to stop because of  habitual tanning. According to psychiatry professor, Dr. Bryon Adinoff at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, tanning can be as addictive as drugs and alcohol.

So, I went to a tanning salon, sat in the lobby and watched people come and go for about 15 minutes. I know that was a little weird but I wanted to see who goes to tanning places. Maybe I could spot a “tanorexic.”

Most of the customers I saw were teenage girls, but there was a steady stream of older women who came in for their regular appointments. The older women had really wrinkled skin so I didn’t understand why they would want to add more damage to their already damaged skin? I had to ask. One lady said it made her feel good, another liked the look of the tan because she didn’t have to wear nylons, another says she’s addicted. I think I found a few tanorexics!

In his study,  Dr. Adinoff discovered that the ultraviolet radiation that we constantly try to block when we put on sunscreens, not only damages skin, but also turns on a reward switch in the brain like a cigarette does for a smoker and alcohol does for the alcoholic.

Dr. Adinoff divided tanners into two groups.  One group tanned but the ultraviolet radiation was blocked. After the tanning session, this group was asked if they wanted to keep tanning. They indicated YES. They had the desire to continue. The other group was exposed to the ultravolet radiation. The reward centers in their brains lit up like addicts. When asked if they wanted to continue to tan, they said NO because they had their fix. Like the smoker who takes a hit of nicotine to satisfy the craving, the ultraviolet radiation exposed group had had enough for the moment.

The thinking here is that indoor tanning can stimulate reward centers in the brain, making it difficult for people to stop. The UV light may be the rewarding property that prompts tanners to keep going even when it is unhealthy and they are at risk.

So despite all the warnings about the harmful rays one is exposed to in tanning beds, people (around 30 million a year) continue to indoor tan. How many of those are addicted? We don’t know but don’t be surprised if you see a Tanning Anonymous group next to the anorexics!

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