Did you hear the one about the teen who was addicted to tanning?

Oh, wait a minute … that wasn’t a joke, it was a legit research study. Let’s look a little closer, is there a disorder called tanorexia?

The surprising new study, published in the Archives of Dermatology, looked at 421 students at a large university in the Northeast. 229 of them had gone to indoor tanning beds, and 160 of those met the criteria for addiction to it (based on a screening tool called the CAGE test).

These 160 students tanned  frequently (at least 2-3X a week), cancelled other activities to tan instead, and reported feeling more upbeat and relaxed after a tanning session. 100% of the students — yup,  all of them — were aware of the link between tanning and skin cancer, but they chose to do it anyway.

The college students who were addicted to indoor tanning were also more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, and greater use of alcohol, marijuana and other substances than their peers who were not addicted.

So do these young adults have an underlying mood disorder that they’re self-medicating with tanning, along with other substances? How does that work?

When we first read about this research, we thought that the goal of all this tanning was that bronze glow, and assumed that the emotional pay-off was the look itself. But it seems that UV light exposure from tanning beds promotes the release of endorphins, those “feel good” chemicals in the brain.

When you tan, you may feel better about your appearance, but you also just feel better.  Indoor tanning is on the rise among adolescents and young adults. The industry is booming, despite federal efforts aimed at regulating and taxing it.

Labeling this an addiction may be an overstatement, and part of the popular trend of medicalizing all forms of overuse, as in internet addiction, sex addiction, texting addiction, and so on … but one thing is clear. If the link between anxiety, substance abuse, and indoor tanning is confirmed by future studies, treating the underlying mood disorder may be a necessary step in reducing skin cancer risk in our teens.

And has anyone shown them what that skin looks like as you edge past 40?

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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