Patricia Krentcil became sadly famous a few months ago for taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon. The little girl suffered skin burns and the authorities intervened in the case, which gained major media coverage and even led to a ban in New York on minors entering tanning salons.
Krentcil, aged 44, suffers from tanorexia, a new cosmetic addiction that describes people obsessed with achieving a darker skin tone. In 2005, a study by the University of Texas (USA) showed that this disease existed and pointed out that the production of endorphins (chemical substances produced by the brain that cause a feeling of euphoria) triggered by tanning could be addictive.
As dermatologists are constantly telling us, excess tanning, whether natural or “artificial”, causes premature ageing of the skin and exposes us to serious health risks such as melanoma, one of the most aggressive cancers. And if it becomes an uncontrolled addiction, the problem multiplies.
The scientific community has still not fully accepted the term tanorexia and rejects headlines that breezily claim, with no figures to support them, that there has been a “rise in the number of cases” of people with tanning addiction. Another more recent study, published in Addiction Biology in May 2012, also suggested that ultraviolet light activates reward mechanisms in the brain, and this may encourage tanning; however, the study did not mention the term tanorexia.
The media, however, have made the term their own in order to warn of the cosmetic addictions linked to body dysmorphic disorder, which essentially describes an excessive concern for real or imagined defects associated with one’s body image, or in order to show shocking pictures and gain a larger audience.
I need my dose of sun
In the same way that people who suffer from anorexia never see themselves as thin enough, sufferers of tanorexia see themselves as pale even when they are not and experience something similar to withdrawal symptoms if they stop getting their dose of natural outdoor sun, UV rays or even drugs, such as melanocortin, which stimulates tanning and, as a side effect, sex drive.
They justify themselves by saying that greater exposure to the sun leads to higher vitamin-D synthesis; and the medical literature shows a link between vitamin D insufficiency and osteoporosis and other diseases such as multiple sclerosis. However, as Dr Mataix of the dermatology department of Hospital Marina Baixa in Alicante, Spain, says,
“current evidence does not support recommending greater exposure to sunlight to increase the synthesis of vitamin D”.
But there is ample reporting of the negative consequences of excessive exposure to sunlight, which range from premature wrinkles to skin cancer and from burns to light allergy and other skin diseases.
From the beach to the TV
Nevertheless, for people who suffer from tanorexia, the pleasurable effect caused by exposure to UV light and the desire to have skin of a darker tone is stronger than any other consideration. According to doctors, the skin is just the outermost layer of a deeper problem of insecurity and the need to feel accepted. Changing one’s appearance is the easiest way of achieving this, although the satisfaction does not last long.
In September, after going to court, Patricia Krentcil decided to swap her UV sessions for appearances in the media. This is another way of feeling accepted. Now, she has become the brand image for a manufacturer of sunblock and products for improving the appearance of the skin.