Understanding Tanorexia: A HealthCentral Explainer

ALTudor Editor

    Photos of New Jersey resident Patricia Krentcil have sparked a firestorm of online questions, concerns, and old-fashioned curiosity, and not because of the legal charges.


    What happened?


    Krentcil is facing second-degree child endangerment charges after being accused of taking her 5-year-old daughter Anna into a tanning booth, a charge that Krentcil denies.  And though this charge is shocking in its own right, it pales (if you’ll forgive the pun) in comparison to people’s reactions to photos and video footage of Krentcil herself.  Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper couldn’t hide his astonishment at the 44-year-old’s appearance, saying in a “Ridiculist” segment on his show that there was a “fine line between UVF and WTF.”

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    Krentcil has apparently been visiting tanning booths since she was a teen, and this constant exposure to tanning bed rays has given Krentcil quite literally a “bronzed” appearance. As you can see from the linked photos, her skin is the color of leather, and the 44-year-old appears many years older than her actual age.  Krentcil admits that she tans excessively, estimating that she visits a tanning booth approximately 20 days a month, and several dermatologists have weighed in on the case, with one saying in an article in the Daily News that he “…[has] never encountered anything like this.”


    What makes a person tan that much?


    So far, Krentcil’s response to the criticism levied at her has been to accuse her detractors of sour grapes.  In a recent CBS News article, she said:  There's somebody out there on my whole life that doesn't like me because they're jealous, they're fat and they're ugly.”


    The response seems to indicate that something more than tanning is going on with Krentcil’s habit, and that her own assessment of her frankly odd appearance and of her critic’s response to it is a bit skewed. Several experts have weighed in and diagnosed Krentcil with some sort of body dysmorphic disorder, a condition in which a person is overly concerned with some perceived defect in his or her appearance.  This disorder can be caused by genetic or brain chemistry issues, or by environmental factors (such as emotional or physical abuse or neglect) that give someone a negative image of his or her body. This condition can lead to excessive cosmetic surgeries, severe weight loss, and even the type of excessive tanning that appears to be taking place in Krentcil’s case.


    Others say Krentcil’s appearance might also be due to tanning addiction, also known as tanorexia. 


    How can tanning be addictive?


    The skin’s exposure to UV radiation in a tanning booth causes a release of endorphins in a reaction that is similar to that of an opioid (narcotic) drug. Thus, the more people tan, the more they experience this “tanning high” – and the more they come to crave the sensation.  This leads to an addictive relationship with tanning that’s similar to the one between a smoker and a cigarette or an alcoholic and a drink. 


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    As dermatologist Dr. Doris Day states in a recent interview:  We often consider going to a tanning salon the equivalent of smoking for the skin. And the younger you start, those effects are cumulative," meaning that Krentcil could have been experiencing this “high” for many, many years. 


    Combine this with her inability to objectively assess her appearance, and you have a dangerous mix that has likely significantly increased her risk of both skin cancer and prematurely aged skin.


    How do you know if you have tanorexia?


    Tanning bed use has been under much scrutiny in the past few years, as mounting research has found the use of the devices greatly increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. This scrutiny sharpened after the World Health Organization classified tanning beds “carcinogenic to humans,” citing a 2006 study that found that people who used these devices before age 30 had a 75 percent higher risk of developing melanoma. Some say tanning bed use is behind the rising rates of skin cancer among young people (especially women).


    If you’re concerned that you or someone in your life is addicted to tanning, here are four signs experts say often point to tanorexia:


    -       You or your friend perceives his or her skin to be lighter than it actually is.

    -       You or your loved one “competes” with others to see who has the darkest skin.

    -       You or someone you know experiences profound anxiety or depression at missing a tanning session.

    -       You or your loved one is constantly frustrated at not being tan enough.


    Being aware of the problem is the first step in treating it. And experts say educating the public about the cancer risks of tanning bed use might also help people seek help for their tanning bed addiction.


    As for Krentcil, she has denied taking her daughter into the tanning booth, and a jury will have to decide if that is the case. But perhaps some good can come from her example, such as shining a spotlight of the risks of tanning bed use and raising awareness about the possible addictive consequences of these devices.


    And all the attention may do Krentcil herself some good, starting with the fact that her own tanning salon has revoked her membership and offered her a refund.


Published On: May 07, 2012