Tanning Addiction May Be Linked To Alcohol Dependency, Mental Health Issues

By Paul Gaita 04/28/17

A recent study examined the possible link between tanning dependency and those with addiction and/or mental health issues. 

woman in protective goggles laying inside a tanning bed.

Individuals who show a physical and psychological dependence on tanning are also likely to exhibit other dependent behaviors and emotional/mental issues, including alcoholism, exercise "addiction" and forms of depression.

Those are the findings of a new study conducted by researchers from the Yale School of Public Health funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute and a grant from the American Cancer Society.

The study profiled individuals who had taken part in a previous study involving carcinoma to determine if a link between excessive and obsessive tanning was a predicator for other dependency issues. Nearly a quarter of the participants were classified as "tanning dependent" (TD), and also showed signs of alcohol and exercise dependency, though direct links between the behaviors remain a subject for further studies.

To conduct their study, researchers enlisted individuals who had been a part of a previous case-control study of early-onset basal cell carcinoma. Approximately 81.9% of the previous study group, or 499 people—all non-Hispanics of European ancestry—participated in the new study, which was comprised of an online survey.

Data on each participant was culled from the carcinoma survey—specifically in regard to tanning history (both outdoors and/or using a tanning bed), skin and eye color—and combined with data from the new survey, which used a modified version of the CAGE questionnaire, a clinical tool used to diagnose substance-related issues. 

For tanning dependency, the questionnaire includes four queries to participants about whether they've felt the need to Cut down on tanning, if they've been Annoyed by criticism of their tanning habits or felt Guilty about their behavior, and if they were compelled to tan first thing in the morning (Eye-Opener). Recent studies have shown that frequent tanners score positive on the CAGE test; a survey of Texas beachgoers found that 26% of participants met the criteria for TD.

The results of the survey found that the participants who qualified as TD were also likely to suffer from other dependency or behavioral issues: they were six times more likely to exhibit alcohol dependency than those who did not qualify. They were also five times more likely to exhibit tendencies towards excessive exercise and three times more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The researchers acknowledge that the connections between the dependencies and/or afflictions are more suggestive than definitive, and require more in-depth examination.

"Our hypothesis behind the finding [for exercise "addiction"] is that people who exercise excessively do so because they are very aware of their appearance, and they also feel that being tanned improves their appearance," said lead author Brenda Cartmel, Ph.D. "It may be that we will eventually find out that these individuals have more of an addictive or risk-taking personality type. If you have one type of dependence, you may be more likely to have another addiction."

Ultimately, the researchers hope that their study will provide clinicians with a new means of addressing both the core condition and the related dependencies. "People who are tanning could also be assessed for SAD," said Cartmel. "Regarding the alcohol dependence association, it may be possible that addressing that behavior could help address tanning dependence." 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.