[By Kylie Song]
Recent headlines showcased a mother accused of taking her 5-year-old into a tanning booth. Patricia Krentcil, a self-conscious tanning addict, was accused of bringing her 5-year-old daughter Anna into a tanning booth without the salon’s knowledge.
Krentcil and several witnesses denied the charges, alleging that her daughter got the sunburn while playing outside.
Wikipedia defines “tanorexia” as “the term often used to describe a condition in which a person participates in excessive outdoor suntanning or excessive use of other skin tanning methods (such as tanning beds) to achieve a darker skin complexion because they perceive themselves as unacceptably pale”.
Krentcil admitted to reporters than she tans excessively, and experts all agree that this could have led to a potential tanning addiction. Strange as it may sound, tanorexia is a very real phenomenon in a world that is obsessed with beauty and the “glow” of health. In 2005, a group of dermatologists published a study showing that frequent tanners experience a loss of control over their tanning schedule, displaying a pattern of addiction similar to smokers and alcoholics. In fact, biochemical evidence indicated that tanning addicts are addicted to an chemical release experienced during tanning which gave them a sense of euphoria much like that of a drug. Tanorexics have been known to suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to indulge their tanning cravings.
“Until five years ago, I didn’t pick up sunblock,” admits Julie, an auditor who favored baby oil over sunscreen. Even when she developed a severe sunburn after a week in the Bahamas, she continued with her tanning craze. “It took years to modify my psychotic bronzing behavior. The rush I got from tanning was 100 percent addictive.”
This rush is just what the latest medical findings are confirming: that frequent tanning is akin to a drug addiction. Found in sunlight and tanning beds, ultraviolet light (made up of UVA and UVB rays) in fact produces endorphins — chemicals in the brain that create a feeling of euphoria. Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center studying frequent tanners who’d been given endorphin blockers recorded withdrawal symptoms — namely nausea, dizziness, and the shakes.
Addiction is why tanorexics can’t simply slather on self-tanners — just as alcoholics can’t be pacified with a glass of juice. Come winter, rather than give up their drug, tanororexics hit the tanning salon — which is even more dangerous than overdoing it outdoors. “Tanning lamps emit four times more damaging UVA rays than the sun,” explains Dr Chua Han Boon of The Sloane Clinic. “What’s more, your risk of melanoma increases 75 percent if you tan indoors before age 35”.
When it comes to exposing our skin to UV rays, moderation is key. Sunlight can help our bodies produce Vitamin D and light stimulation has been known to help fight off myopia in children. However, excessive tanning does have its risks. Here are some ways you can achieve a healthy summer glow without falling into the trap of tanorexia.
1. Gradually build up the amount of time you spend in the sun.
Sunlight consists of both UV-A and UV-B radiation. Most sunburns are caused by UV-B radiation. Even a single sunburn increases your lifetime risk of skin cancer. That’s why it’s so important to protect your skin from even a single episode of sunburn. To prevent sunburn, build up your exposure to the sun gradually, starting with just 15 minutes a day, building up to several hours a day by the end of summer. And when you are going to be out in the sun for more than 15 minutes, be sure to protect your skin with a sunscreen that contains one of the compounds that prevents against UV-B radiation.
2. Avoid sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when it’s brightest.
One of the most important tips for healthier tanning is to remember that if you can’t go inside, a broad rimmed hat (protecting your neck and ears) and a cover-up for your shoulders is best. If you are spending a day on the beach, plan indoor activities for midday.
3. Use a sunscreen, and make sure it is the right SPF.
SPF stands for sun protection factor. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection against sun. An SPF of 15, for example, protects your skin from burning up to 15 times the amount of exposure usually required for burning (which will vary according to your skin time). An SPF of 70 will protect your skin from 70 times as much sun as usually causes a burn. Splashing water on your skin or perspiring, of course, reduce the effectiveness of skin protection. In Australia, you will not be able to find sunscreens with an SPF higher than 30, and in the European Union you will not be able to find sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50. This is not because the sunscreens don’t protect your skin with more than SPF 30 or SPF 50 protection, but because label laws do not permit claims for greater protection, even if the product offers greater protection. (The reason for the law is that regulatory agencies in these agencies wanted to prevent product competition on the basis of higher and higher SPF.) Simply choose the product with the highest available SPF.
4. Don’t rely on sunlight for all your vitamin D.
Especially after the age of 50, the skin does not make as much vitamin D even with sun exposure. If you are over 50 and you don’t use sunscreen, you do increase cancer risk when you burn, but you don’t get the benefit of additional vitamin D. Taking up to 1,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D is a good idea. Do consult your doctor if you have medical problems to check if supplementation will be suitable for you.
5. Wear UV-protective lens, or don’t wear sunglasses at all.
This tip may save your sight: Sunglasses that are tinted but not UV-protective, may actually increase the risk of developing age-related eye problems! That’s because tinted lens block visible light but not the UV light that causes cataract. When you wear tinted lenses, the pupils of your eyes open wider to admit more visible light, and in the process your eyes are exposed to even more than normal UV light.
6. Use sunscreen every day if you are exposed to sun for more than 20 minutes.
This is especially important if you were frequently sunburned as a child, even more so if you were sunburned before the age of one. The additional sun protection will slow or prevent the progression of old skin damage to skin cancer.
7. Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen after you have been in the water.
And be very careful about burning while swimming, water skiing, or floating in a pool. Water reflects the sun’s rays back to your body in areas which ordinarily would be in the shadows, and cools the skin so that you do not notice that you are burning.
8. Remember, you can also burn in a tanning bed.
Most tanning lamps emit both UV-A and UV-B light. Every year about 700 people in the United States alone have to be treated in hospital for burns received in tanning beds. Research finds that about 1/4 of the population is actually predisposed to tanorexia, a literal, physical addiction to tanning. During tanning, these individuals release opioid chemicals, the same chemicals that are released during gambling, skydiving, sex, shooting heroin, or eating fatty, sugary foods. In persons who have the genetics for getting a “high” from laying out in the sun or in a tanning bed, tremendous willpower is required to break a very real addiction. So it is safer not to indulge in such behavior if you find yourself at risk of tanorexia. Remind yourself of the risks of tanning, whether it is out in the sun or under a tanning bed. Finally, if you find yourself unable to control your tanning urges, seek help.