Tanorexia: Obsession with the sun

Beauty magazine poll finds 72 percent of Americans think people look better tan


MIAMI, Fla. – A beauty magazine poll found that 72 percent of Americans thought people look better tan.  But in the search for that perfect glow, some people are becoming sun addicts, a condition known as tanorexia.

"It's bliss, it's my refuge," said Danielle Kirk, who considers the sun her best friend. "It makes me feel good and she's always there, and even when she's not there on a rainy day, I know she'll come out tomorrow."

Kirk is a native New Yorker who moved to South Florida specifically for a daily dose of sunshine to elevate her mood. But her dermatologist is concerned about the effect on Kirk's skin.

"I do get reprimanded on a regular basis because she tells me I'm too tan," Kirk said.

For some, sun exposure can actually stimulate reward centers in the brain that release "feel good" chemicals into the blood stream.

Tanorexics also suffer from a false-self image.

"Some have likened tanning to a form of body dysmorphic disorder where people perceive their complexion as lighter than it is, or they don't accept their skin the color it is," said dermatologist Dr. Shaindy Aber.

People will tan even to the point of harming their own health.

"I have patients who, despite knowing the danger of sun exposure and even those who've had skin cancer, continue to go into the sun on a daily basis," Aber said.

Despite a history of cancer in her family, Kirk might take that risk.

"If a doctor were to say, 'You have pre-cancerous cells on your skin' would I lay off? Sure I would lay off, but would I lay off completely? No," Kirk said.

Since tanorexia can be both psychological as well as physiological, the treatment approach is typically two-fold: Therapy to address the false perceptions of appearance and anti-anxiety medications to ease withdrawal.

Not only does sun exposure increase your risk of skin cancer, but it also leads to pigment changes, wrinkles and sagging, a far cry from a "sexy tan."