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Frequent Tanning May Signify Mental Disorder

Some People With Body Dysmorphic Disorder Tan to Hide Perceived Defects

WebMD Health News

Aug. 5, 2004 -- Certain excessive tanners -- sometimes referred to as "tanarexics" -- may be suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, a condition involving excessive preoccupation with a minor or an imagined defect.

Unlike mirror checking, combing hair, shaving, removing or cutting hair, and/or applying makeup, excessive tanning has not previously been described as a feature of body dysmorphic disorder, say researchers from Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I. They presented their research at the annual summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in New York City.

In the study of 11 frequent tanners with body dysmorphic disorder, the No. 1 reason they tanned was to conceal perceived physical defects. In fact, the majority thought that their main defect was their light-colored skin and as a result, they used tanning to deepen their skin tone. Others used tanning to camouflage specific perceived defects.

"In general for anyone who is tanning excessively, there is an increased risk of developing skin cancer," researcher Jennifer Hunter-Yates, MD, dermatology resident at Brown Medical School's department of dermatology, tells WebMD. "Younger people also increase their risk of photoaging with sun exposure," she says. Photoaging is premature aging of the skin, including wrinkles.

Excessive tanners with body dysmorphic disorder "have an actual psychiatric disorder and it's important to address this," Hunter-Yates tells WebMD. "Getting them to see a psychiatrist is really the key," she says. Some research shows that counseling and/or medications to control anxiety and depression may help treat body dysmorphic disorder.

Of the 11 frequent tanners, 27% were female with an average age of 31 and 18% were married. People in the study also engaged in other body dysmorphic disorder behaviors such as constant mirror checking and grooming and many also had anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., body dysmorphic disorder can be chronic and may lead to repeated hospitalizations and suicide. It can also result in decreased social, academic, and occupational functioning.

The Britney Effect

Libby Buscemi, MD, a New York City dermatologist, certainly sees her share of excessive tanners. When she asks people why they tan, they typically say such things as "I feel better, look better, and look thinner when I am tan," she tells WebMD.

There is also a cultural aspect to it, she says. "Back when people worked on the farm, it was not considered attractive to be tan because it meant you were a laborer," she says. But times are changing; today you see mega stars like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears sporting tans.

"One major misconception is that tanners think getting their skin checked before or after they sit in the sun means they will be OK, but damage shows up years and years later," Buscemi warns.

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