Does Your Teen Have Tanorexia?

A Look at Tanning Addiction

Tanorexia is a slang term for a tanning addiction. Does your teen love to tan? Does he spend hours in the sun? Does she go to a tanning salon a little too often? It's possible your teen has a tanning addiction.

The Basics of Addiction

Addiction is a complicated subject. Addiction occurs when someone becomes dependent upon a substance or a behavior. Additionally, using the substance or doing the behavior has destructive consequences.

Despite the consequences, the addicted person continues to indulge in their addiction because, in the moment, it can be pleasurable. People can be physically addicted or psychologically addicted to something. If someone drinks too much alcohol, the body can become dependent on it. If that person stops drinking alcohol after becoming dependent, withdrawal can occur. If someone has a shopping addiction, not shopping can cause emotional distress.

One of the tools that doctors and researchers use to screen for alcohol and other addictions is the CAGE questionnaire. The questionnaire asks if the person has ever attempted to Cut down on the behavior, if it is Annoying if someone criticizes the behavior, if there is Guilt about the behavior and if the person needs an Eye-opener (you must have the substance first thing in the morning). These questions can help to determine if the substance or the behavior is a problem, and has been adapted in various ways to cover the different kinds of addictions.[/p

Can Someone Have a Tanning Addiction?

There are a handful of studies that suggest that tanning can be addictive. One study by Warthan, Uchida and Wagner asked 145 beachgoers in Texas about how they felt about tanning. In this study, they asked the subjects to fill out the CAGE questionnaire questions.

Additionally, they answered a separate questionnaire that would help the researchers determine if these tanners were addicted to tanning. The second set of questions were from a manual of psychological disorders (DSM-IV-TR), and the questions help to determine if the person has an addiction to a substance, but the questions were modified for tanning. In this study, 26% of people scored positively on the CAGE questionnaire and 53% scored positively on the DSM-IV-TR screening tool. This means a quarter to a half of those asked indicated that they might have a tanning addiction. The study was done on a population of people who tanned frequently, so it might not be able to be applied directly to the general public. The information produced by the study was still strong, and pointed to the possibility of tanning addiction.

A second study by Poorsattar and Hornung asked undergraduate college students about their tanning behaviors. They surveyed 385 students and also asked them the CAGE questionnaire questions.

Approximately 12% of these students had a positive score on the CAGE questions. 28% of those surveyed who tanned indoors (through tanning beds or tanning salons) scored positively on the questionnaire. Many of these students who tanned frequently reported that tanning was relaxing and it improved their mood. This positive reward for the behavior points to its potentially addictive nature.

Another study by Kaur, et al suggests that tanning is addictive by a different method. It has been shown that people who tan frequently overwhelmingly prefer tanning beds that emit UV-light versus those that don't. Other research has shown that UV light can increase the levels of [link=""]endorphins in the body, linking UV light to pleasurable feelings. This small study of eight frequent tanners and eight infrequent tanners tested tanning addiction by giving the subjects naltrexone. Naltrexone blocks the release of endorphins, reducing the amount of pleasure that can be gotten from a substance or behavior. In this study, half of the frequent tanners (four of eight) had unpleasant effects from the use of the medication, suggesting that they might be withdrawing from the endorphins from UV light. Two of those subjects had such strong reactions that they dropped out of the study, and the study was prematurely ended. None of the infrequent tanners had a reaction to the medication at any dose. This study suggests that UV light exposure can cause an increase in endorphins, which can be addicting. If this exposure is reduced or eliminated, it is possible that physical withdrawal symptoms can occur.

What to Look For

Could your teen be tanorexic? There are a few things to look for:

  • Tanning more than necessary to maintain a tan. Tanning eight to 15 or more times a month can signal a problem.
  • Annoyance when asked about the behavior. If you ask about it, and your teen is particularly irritable or defensive, it might point to an addiction.
  • Becoming obsessive about tanning. Does your teen frequently talk about tanning? Does she get annoyed or angry if she can't go? These could be signs of an addiction.
  • Tanning even if there are serious consequences. Does someone in your family have skin cancer? Is your teen at high risk because of fair skin? Has your teen had a blistering sunburn – but went back for more sun time? If your teen is ignoring the obvious dangers of tanning, you might need to take a closer look at your teen's behavior.

Addictions of any kind are challenging to address. If you are concerned about your son or daughter's tanning behaviors, you'll need help in dealing with it. Discuss your concerns with your family provider. Ask for a referral to a counselor that specializes in addictions. There are many questions out there about tanorexia, but a professional who understands addiction can help.


Kaur, M., MD, Liguori, A. PhD, Lang, W. PhD, Rapp, S.R. PhD, Fleischer Jr A.B., MD, and Feldman, S.R. MD, PhD. Induction of withdrawal-like symptoms in a small randomized, controlled trial of opioid blockade in frequent tanners.

54:709-11, 2006.

Poorsattar, S.P., BS, and Hornung, R.L. MD, MPH. UV light abuse and high-risk tanning behavior among undergraduate college students. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 56:375-9, 2007.

Warthan, M.M., MD, Uchida, T., MS, Wagner, R.F. Jr, MD. UV Light Tanning as a Type of Substance-Related Disorder.

Archives of Dermatology, 141:963-966, 2005.

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