The (too) dark side of tanning

Some tan too much because it releases endorphins or because they are insecure about their appearance.

by Courtney Johnson

I love going tanning. It’s warm, provides a glow to my skin and makes me feel more self-confident in the way that I present myself. I do not do it very frequently, maybe a couple of times in the spring to get a jumpstart in embracing that summer time feeling and also to prepare for fun, tropical vacations. As wonderful of an experience as it is though, tanning is not something that society should get too used to because it is bad for our long-term health.

On the other hand, I have friends who go tanning religiously. To them, it is a need and therefore a part of their daily routine. For years, these friends of mine have heard the same statistics relating this bad habit to the heightened risk of skin cancer. But even though they are aware that indoor UV tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors, why is it that they keep on coming back for more? It is because tanning can become an addiction. Not to say that these friends of mine are addicted — yet. But in an addictive culture involving smoking, alcohol, social media and cellphones, who is to say that one more addiction would even be noticeable?

Personality traits play a large role in whether somebody can become addicted to any sort of stimulant. Those who have addictive personalities, those who are more impulsive or those who buy into media portrayals of attractiveness are more likely to develop an addiction to tanning. In the case of tanning, many claim that tanning relaxes them and helps their self-esteem after a few visits to that ever so appealing ultra-violet tanning bed.

The love for the exotic bronze (sometimes orange) glow of the skin is a major factor in the infatuation with indoor tanning. Why some people like looking like Snooki from “Jersey Shore” or Oompa Loompas from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is beyond me. But the addiction is more than skin deep. The allure is a result of the rush of endorphins that are released into the brain and pulse through the body while tanning.

This means that tanning not only becomes a physical addiction to the way that one looks but also an unintentional psychological addiction to the feeling that it produces.

TLC’s popular show “My Strange Addiction” showcases this philosophy perfectly. The show demonstrates a great variety of addictions, ranging from obsessive shopping to intimate relationships with cars and the habit in question — pathological tanning.

Samantha, a 20-year-old woman from Woodhaven, Mich., was featured on an episode of TLC’s show that centered on tanning addictions. Samantha, completely aware of the increased dangers of cancer and skin damage still rotates to about three tanning salons per day.

An indoor tanning law in the state of Minnesota states that customers are not allowed to go to any one tanning salon twice in any 24 hour time period. Despite this law, which is in place for the intended safety of tanning patrons, it does not prevent tanning junkies such as Samantha from traveling from salon to salon, tanning multiple times in one day. Samantha admitted in the episode to experiencing bleeding on her backside because of skin damage that was caused from the excess amount of tanning.

Another obsessive tanner who was featured on the show excused her tanning with the fact that that the sun was healthy and that because she lives in California, not being tan is a bad reflection of the California community. She knows that is an indulgence that she needs to stop, but because she enjoys it so much, she nods it off by saying, “Oh well.”

Samantha and other guests on the show are aware that excessive tanning causes leathery skin at earlier ages in life. Their solution? Botox, face lifts and plastic surgery. As Samantha’s mother points out in the episode, she will need to be sure that she can actually afford that before making it her “simple” solution to continue to “enhance” her appearance and probably her next addiction.

While some bad habits such as tanning may be culturally accepted to an extent, once they interfere with the social lives of those who do them, they start to enter that gray area between socially acceptable and begging for an intervention.

But calling for an intervention and knowing if one is needed is not always obvious. Even when Samantha’s family and friends call her out on her behavior, she ignores their warnings and goes on with her indoor and outdoor tanning regimen. She claims that she is aware of her bad habits but cares more for the way that she looks.

Addictive and bad habits are not limited to tanning, smoking or drinking. These addictive qualities can also be seen in social media and having to have certain technological devices. Does being addicted to checking Facebook or email every hour sound familiar?

Even though these types of bad habits are performed and observed across society every day, ultimately it is the choice of the user to stop the self-destructive behavior. Easier said than done for some, yes, but developing coping mechanisms can be quite helpful for those who actually want to be healthy again. For those with addictive personalities, moving to a less destructive addiction might be their best individual solution.

Tanning, when done in moderation, is a wonderful thing. It provides an increased level of endorphins and vitamin D in your body and helps with self-confidence too — but too much of a good thing can be bad. Tanning is only one example of a bad habit that can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.