If last week's media firestorm about the "tanning mom" and her daughter did any good, it's that it brought to light a serious condition: tanorexia. Tanorexia may sound like a joke of a word—one that was more likely made up by someone on social media rather than a medical professional—but it's a real thing. And a very serious one.
"Tanorexia is a term that describes a condition in which a person tans excessively to achieve a darker complexion because they perceive themselves as unacceptably pale," says Dr. Glenn Kolansky, board certified New Jersey dermatologist. "This tanning may be by outdoor tanning (sunlight) or by the use of tanning beds. Tanorexia is a dangerous condition because the prolonged UV radiation can lead to skin cancer."
While many confuse tanorexia with tanning addiction, the two are very different things, Kolansky says. The UV light of tanning can cause the brain to produce pleasure-inducing endorphins, and tanning addicts are addicted to the opioid release experienced during tanning.
For those suffering from tanorexia though, it's similar to other body-image disorders, like anorexia, because the person looks in the mirror and does not see the reality of what they are seeing.
"Their mind distorts the truth," he says. "Anorexia is a serious eating disorder. Anorexia is a refusal to maintain a normal body weight, and intense fear of gaining weight as well as a distorted body-image. No matter how skinny you become, it is never enough. They are both distorted body image disorders but one is the misconception of one’s thinness, and the other is misconception of the color or tan look of the skin."
Even though tanning addiction and tanorexia can be treated, the damage caused by the UV radiation exposure cannot be reversed. In fact, the damage to the skin and the increased risks of skin cancer remain, Kolansky says.
That's why tanning (by tanning beds or sunlight) is never safe. In fact, the tan color is the body’s way of protecting itself. Kolansky recommends applying moisturizer with a sunscreen daily and, when playing outdoor sports or going to the beach, wearing protective sun clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Use a sunscreen that has a 30 SPF or higher and apply it 20 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Reapply every two hours.
"Tanning can lead to skin cancer," he says. "The UV radiation is dangerous and the total amount of sun exposure adds up quickly. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are often the direct result of overexposure to this radiation. Melanomas, even though there may be a genetic disposition in some people, maybe a direct result of over exposure to UV radiation. Many young women in their 20s and 30s have died of melanoma."
Do you tan? Ever felt the addicting proprieties of tanning? Followed the "tanning mom" story? Use sunscreen regularly? Tell us about it in the comments!