While the U.S. study is in no means conclusive and suggests that tanning is an addiction, Lisham Ashrafioun, a Bowling Green State University Ph.D. student in psychology, and Dr Erin Bonar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, sought to identify characteristics associated with problematic tanning and tanning dependence.
The new research shows that some who engage in excessive tanning may also be suffering from obsessive-compulsive (OCD) and body dysmorphic disorders (BDD).
Some not all
The back-story to this research is that some people keep tanning, even after turning brown and experiencing some of the negative consequences. This has led the researchers to look at whether tanning should be classified as an addiction.
"While more research is needed regarding to idea of tanning as an addiction, this study suggests that some people who tan also experience mental health symptoms that warrant further assessment," said Bonar.
"Although tanning behavior could be separate and distinct from these concerns, it's possible that the symptoms of OCD or BDD are contributing to the tanning in some way. For these people, prevention messages and public health campaigns may not be as helpful, but further assessment and treatment could be."
In their study, the researchers administered questionnaires to 533 tanning university students; 31% met criteria for tanning dependence, 12% for problematic tanning.
Ashrafioun and Bonar say that the results suggest that many who engage in excessive tanning may also have significant psychiatric distress.
However, additional research is needed to characterize compulsive, problematic tanning and its rates, correlates, and risk factors among diverse samples; and both scientists admit to several limitations with their study.
"It may be that some individuals in our sample engage in excessive tanning because of obsessive thoughts about, or the compulsion to tan, or because tanning is a strategy for relaxation to decrease OCD symptoms," explains Ashrafioun.
"If problem tanning is conceptualized as an addictive disorder, obsessions and compulsions about tanning may instead represent craving to tan."
The odds of meeting the screening criteria for problematic tanning and tanning dependence was strongest for participants who tanned at least nine times in the past 30 days.
Caution and limits
Ashrafioun also cautious in jumping to the conclusion that tanning is an addiction, rather that it should not necessarily be ruled out given that people are tanning excessively, even if they aren't experiencing any OCD or body dysmorphic disorder.
This does open up the possibility for future research to evaluate relationships between excessive tanning and formal clinical diagnosis of each of these conditions.
"We see this as more potential evidence and firepower for continuing to research the conceptualizing of excessive tanning as an addiction," Ashrafioun adds.
"Previously, clinicians educated patients on the harms of tanning. It's probably more than that -- most people know there are harms, but they continue to do it. We need to be more focused on intervention than just telling people it's bad for them.”
The paper, ‘Tanning Addiction and Psychopathology: Further Evaluation of Anxiety Disorders and Substance Abuse,’ is currently in press in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and will be published later this year.