The compulsion to cook yourself even has a fancy name: Tanorexia. Tanning has much in common with other dangerous habits -- the hooked feel guilty about being hooked, they worry about being able to start the day without a fix, and they hide the problem from the unsympathetic.
Tanning addiction has a physiological basis: UV light increases endorphin release, which most people find pleasurable. The compulsion may also relate to Body Dysmorphic Disorder -- a psychological malady which causes one to become obsessively critical of one's physique. If you're tanorexic, you may see a ghostly pale image in the mirror, no matter how dark you actually are.
By now, everyone should know that excessive tanning can cause skin cancer. People who get into the habit of using tanning beds before the age of 30 vastly increase their chances of contracting melanomas. The 2006 Miss Maryland, Brittany Lietz Cicala, has had dozens of surgeries to remove cancerous moles -- and these surgeries have left serious scars. Some in Congress now hope to pass a "Tanning Bed Cancer Control Act" which would provide consumer safety warnings and regulate the amount of ultraviolet exposure.
Thus, the problem: How do health professionals talk people into breaking the tan habit?
You would think that tan-addicts might be frightened off by the prospect of skin cancer. But that's not the case: In a study of female college students, young women seemed oddly unaffected by any arguments based on cancer prevention. They cared much more about looks:
"Providing young patients who tan with information on the damaging effects of tanning on their appearance is effective even if they are addicted to tanning or using it to ameliorate depression symptoms," the researchers observed.Why does motive matter, you ask? The important thing (you may think) is to get addicts to break the habit, not to fret about whether they've broken it for the right reasons.
Regarding why an appearance-focused intervention would moderate behavior among individuals with motives other than their appearance, the researchers suggested that those who have pathologic motives for tanning also perceived an improvement in their appearance.
But tan-addiction, like all other forms of addiction, appeals to a certain personality type, which is why compulsive tanners also have a tendency to become compulsive substance abusers. Telling young women that tanning can make skin leathery and unattractive may be an effective way to entice them to change their ways, but it also perpetuates insecurities about appearance.
In other words, the "tanning ruins your looks" argument does a good job of steering people away from a very unhealthy habit. But it does not address the underlying emotional and behavioral issues.