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Health, Science

The Next Legal High: Sun Tanning?

“You’ve got a healthy glow! Have you been somewhere hot?”

No, I’ve just spent the afternoon in the garden!

Blue MagicI am one of those irritating people who get a tan at the mere hint of sunshine. A hundred years ago however, I wouldn’t be gloating. Until fairly recently, women went to extraordinary (and dangerous) lengths in pursuit of a freckle-free, pale complexion. To be tanned was ugly and represented the poor, undesirable ‘working class’. That all changed the moment fashion designer Coco Chanel stepped off a cruise liner in 1922 – with a sun-bronzed skin.

Fast forward to today – no longer are lead-based skin whiteners or blood-letting beauty treatments threatening health. The present day sun-worshipping generation risk skin cancer and – perversely – increased skin aging, immune system damage and blindness.

Increasingly, research is uncovering that tanning has become more than an innocuous way to while away a sunny afternoon: For some it becomes an uncontrollable compulsion. Offering a buzz similar to taking drugs, some experts now claim that ‘Tanorexia’ is a very real addiction that destroys lives…

A Brief History of Sun Tanning Addiction

Coco Chanel

'Coco' Chanel - the queen of modern fashion

Tanorexia was originally coined in 1989 in an LA Times feature exploring a new tanning salon craze (this is the earliest record I could find). Six years ago, Dr Wagner Jr., from the University of Texas observed that many beachgoers (53% out of 145 in his original report) met the psychiatric definition of addiction.

More recently, small-scale experiments have found that UV light from sun beds has mood-boosting effects and can produce dependency very similar (if not indiscernible) from drug addiction. Many psychologists and psychiatrists are considering whether tanning addiction should be officially recognised and formally treated.

Test Yourself: Do you have an Addiction?

Honesty check – all of us have habits that we’d rather be rid of. Do you ever get concerned whether that morning diet coke or shopping habit has become an addiction?

One of the most basic (but extremely useful) tests for addiction is the CAGE questionnaire:

  • Do you try to cut down on the time you spend doing it?
  • Do you ever get annoyed when people tell you to stop?
  • Do you ever get guilty about doing it too much?
  • When you wake up in the morning, do you want to do it?

Two or more ‘yes’ answers normally indicate that the issue warrants further investigation.

NB: The CAGE questionnaire is a screening tool and can never be used to diagnose an addiction (or more technically “dependency”)

Is Sun Tanning Really Addictive?

Sun Tan

Which all rather begs the question: Is sun tanning truly addictive in the same way alcohol, nicotine and heroin are? Such drug habits alter the brain’s chemistry which gives that powerful ‘just one more’ drive.

Traditionally, there has been a clear division between ‘hard’ drug addictions and ‘soft’ compulsions (like gambling, self-harm and exercise). It is becoming increasingly apparent that this distinction is somewhat artificial – many habits become addictions because drug-like chemicals – produced within the body – give a very real ‘high’ (noradrenaline, endocannaboids and endorphins are seemingly produced respectively in the three examples above).

Taking the pleasure away…

Interestingly, the tanning buzz that regular tanners get from their sunbed fix can be stopped by the anti-narcotic drug Naltrexone. This recent discovery adds weight to the idea that sun tanning is something intrinsically addictive.

Should ‘Tanorexics’ be offered drug treatment?

Perhaps when the perfect anti-addiction medicine is discovered, Governments should put it in the drinking water!? At least then, no one would anyone suffer from addiction to sun tanning, TV, internet, shopping, video games, eating….

But then where would be the fun in that…?

Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!


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RELATED POST: Are you a Shopping Addict?

DISCLAIMER: Addictions (Dependency states) are serious – if you are concerned then please immediately seek help from a qualified health professional. This blog is intended for entertainment and educational purposes – not health advice. All opinions expressed are my own and are intended to stir up thought and debate – never offense.


Kaur, M., Liguori, A., Lang, W., Rapp, S., Fleischer, Jr., A., & Feldman, S. (2006). Induction of withdrawal-like symptoms in a small randomized, controlled trial of opioid blockade in frequent tanners Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 54 (4), 709-711 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaad.2005.11.1059

FELDMAN, S. (2004). Ultraviolet exposure is a reinforcing stimulus in frequent indoor tanners*1 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 51 (1), 45-51 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaad.2004.01.053

Warthan MM, Uchida T, & Wagner RF Jr (2005). UV light tanning as a type of substance-related disorder. Archives of dermatology, 141 (8), 963-6 PMID: 16103324

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


5 thoughts on “The Next Legal High: Sun Tanning?

  1. Interesting thought, tanning as an addiction. But, come to think about it I do know prople who spend a lot of time around pools and in tanning salons. One more thing to add to the addiction files.

    Posted by London Counselling | October 8, 2011, 8:00 pm
  2. I am definitely going to post this to my sisters Facebook page; she is addicted to sun tanning and I’m worried! I wish pale skin remained a look of high status.

    Posted by Kratom Guy | October 18, 2011, 4:24 pm
  3. I love to go in tanning salons because i am always conscious about my tan. Going to tanning Salons have been my habit nowadays. “.”””

    Posted by Rickie Orleans | October 7, 2012, 1:06 am
  4. Indoor tanning is an environment that can be controlled. Both tanning beds and the sun give off ultra violet light, but as in the case of tanning beds, the C light waves which is considered to be most damaging are filtered. In addition, tanning bulbs emit UVA and UVB in which excessive exposure can be risky, that is why precisely tanning beds are considered safer because exposure can be controlled. ‘

    Remember to visit our very own website
    [link removed by moderator]

    Posted by Lou Bouthillette | February 24, 2013, 12:55 pm
  5. There are really races especially the whites who love to get tanned. But for some particularly the Filipinos, we want to do otherwise. We exert much effort to whiten our “morena” skin.

    Posted by Hannah | July 20, 2016, 8:44 am

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