Tanorexia: When Being Tan Becomes an Obsession

Tanorexia is a psychological problem that can lead to serious health problems, including skin cancer. It's defined as an addiction to tanning.
Tanorexia: When Being Tan Becomes an Obsession
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Tanorexia is a compulsive desire to be or remain tan. For a long time, people thought it was just an eccentric behavior. In fact, it wasn’t classified as an addiction or disorder. However, a study from 2005 by a group of dermatologists changed this view.

Today, specialists approach Tanorexia as an addiction since it meets all the criteria for it. The 2005 study suggests that people with this behavior usually have other behavior patterns of addiction, like alcoholism.

Later studies continued with the same ideas, specifying the possible causes of Tanorexia, which we’ll tell you in this article. Therefore, this compulsive desire to tan is not, as previously believed, a fashion trend or aesthetic obsession. On the other hand, it’s much deeper than that.

What is Tanorexia?

Tanorexia is defined as an addiction to tanning. Those who suffer from it experience an obsessive need to have a darker skin tone. To do this, they sunbathe outdoors or spend lots of time in tanning beds. However, they’re never satisfied with their skin tone.

Experts don’t fully agree on whether it’s an independent psychiatric disorder, or if it’s a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Also, some people point out that it should be considered a syndrome since there are parts of this problem that don’t have sufficient scientific evidence.

Also, those who suffer from this problem don’t take into account the consequences of sun or UV exposure. They have an obsessive need to darken their skin, and the potential health risks can’t convince them otherwise.

A girl applying sunscreen outside.

Symptoms and causes

According to studies by Feldman et al. from 2004, sunbathing repeatedly or exposure to UV rays increases relaxation levels. This is because exposure to UV rays causes the release of endorphins and opioids in the body.

Endorphins are brain chemicals that relieve pain and make you feel good. Also, the body secretes them naturally, from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. However, this only happens under emotional or physical stress. For example, this includes situations of pain or intense effort, excitement, and orgasm.

This happy feeling gives rise to addiction. A person with Tanorexia experiences withdrawal syndrome when they don’t get to tan. The difference between people that like tanning and Tanorexics is that the latter has the following symptoms:

  • Compulsive desire to tan. Also, they always feel frustrated that they can’t get dark enough.
  • The belief that their skin tone is lighter than it really is.
  • Anguish from feeling like they’re losing the tan they already have.
  • Premature skin aging.
  • Burns that they try to cover with makeup.
  • Anxious behavior.
A girl with a sunburn.

The effects of Tanorexia

Reasonable exposure to the sun has positive effects on depression. In addition, it helps metabolize vitamin D. However, too much exposure to sunlight can cause several health problems.

First of all, there’s an effect on the skin because it accelerates skin aging and causes dryness. Also, burns and different forms of cancer can also occur. Excessive sun exposure causes eye damage, immunological disorders, DNA damage, the formation of free radicals, and more.

From a psychological point of view, addiction creates a greater feeling of insecurity and a lack of autonomy. It makes anxiety worse, decreases tolerance to frustration, and often hurts relationships.

Find out more: Six Habits that Help Protect Your Skin from Cancer

What to do

Most often, people with Tanorexia don’t think they have a problem. They may frequently ask their doctor about sunburns or other health conditions from it. However, they will refuse that their tanning caused it.

In fact, this problem is very similar to anorexia. A person with anorexia looks in the mirror and thinks they’re fat, even if they’re just skin and bones. With Tanorexia, a person thinks they look light, even if they’re tanned and even burned.

People with this condition should talk with a mental health professional to work on the triggers for this behavior. Most often, there are self-acceptance problems, but you can treat these with support from professionals.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Azúa Blanco, M., & Muro Baquero, C. (2014). Tanorexia:¿ a quién afecta?¿ Problemas?. Gerokomos, 25(1), 28-31.
  • Heckman, Carolyn J., et al. “Psychiatric Symptoms of Young Adult Female Indoor Tanners.” Abstract published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine 43 (2012): S160.
  • Behar, Rosa, et al. “Trastorno dismórfico corporal: aspectos clínicos, dimensiones nosológicas y controversias con la anorexia nerviosa.” Revista médica de Chile 144.5 (2016): 626-633.
  • Feldman, Steven R., et al. “Ultraviolet exposure is a reinforcing stimulus in frequent indoor tanners.” Journal of the American academy of dermatology 51.1 (2004): 45-51.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.