Tanorexia: fad or serious problem?

As the term ‘alcoholic’ has derivatives such as ‘shopaholic’ and ‘workaholic’, in addition to anorexia, you also have tanorexia. People who suffer from tanorexia are addicted to their tanned complexion and to maintain it they sunbathe compulsively. When I first heard about this condition I wondered: is tanorexia really a serious problem?

A ‘healthy’ tan

In Western society, tanned skin is part of the beauty ideal and is associated with health (one speaks of a healthy tan). If you are a bit pale, you will soon be asked if you are sick or tired. To meet the tanned beauty ideal, some go far, very far. They sunbathe every day, but if they can’t do that outside in the real sun, they go under the sunbed, they compete to see who can get the brownest skin, they bathe or shower as little as possible (because that washes off your tan?! ) and feel terribly bad when circumstances force them to skip sunbathing for a day. These people close their eyes or at least do not let themselves be stopped by the knowledge that too much sunbathing is bad for their health, they have tanorexia.


The September/October issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior published the results of a study by the Fox Chase Cancer Center into the phenomenon of tanorexia among 400 students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The researchers conclude that it is indeed possible to become addicted to sunbathing; the respondents observed symptoms that are indicative of, for example, a nicotine or alcohol addiction (needing more and more for the same effect, withdrawal symptoms, continuing while you are aware of health risks). The addictive effect is said to be caused by the endorphins that are released when you tan and that give you a pleasant, relaxed feeling. The researchers observed one or more symptoms of tanorexia in no fewer than 25% of the American students surveyed. Similar figures also emerged from a study in Belgium. In response to the problem, Belgians have been banning young people under the age of eighteen from access to tanning studios since January 2008. This ban also applies to people with very light skin. This policy is in accordance with the advice given to the European Commission by the Scientific Committee for Consumer Goods.

The Netherlands

The extent of the problem in the Netherlands cannot yet be determined due to a lack of research. The fact is that the number of people with skin cancer doubles every ten years and there has been an increase in skin cancer among young people in recent years. If you consider that a lot of sunbathing at a young age greatly increases the risk of skin cancer after about twenty years, you understand why the Netherlands Cancer Institute is concerned and insists that tanning beds for young people under the age of eighteen should also be banned in the Netherlands. No one believes that this will solve the problem. Intensive information about safe sunbathing and a change in mentality remain necessary.

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