Did you know?

Click any word in a definition or example to find the entry for that word


noun [countable]

a person who spends an excessive amount of time trying to get a tan (= darker skin colour) and therefore puts themselves at risk of getting a serious skin disease




noun [uncountable]

'After baking her body under UV radiation in a tanning bed as often as four times a week for three years, she developed melanoma. "I was definitely a tanorexic," she said. "I never thought I was dark enough."'

ABC News 6th May 2007

'A 13-year-old girl has spoken about her potentially life-threatening addiction to sunbeds – dubbed Tanorexia. Schoolgirl Hayley Barrow, from Liverpool, visits tanning parlours five times a week, saying she looks "transparent" without daily doses.'

icLiverpool 24th May 2004

A tan to die for? Unfortunately it seems that in recent years there are two different ways of interpreting this expression, as we've seen a growing trend of people wanting that sun-kissed look so desperately that they're prepared to put their health at risk to get it. So acute is the obsession, that we've needed to create a new word to describe those who are plagued by it – the tanorexic.

sufferers … describe feeling that they look 'white' if they go two or three days without exposure

In western society, we usually consider skin that is bronze in colour, i.e. tanned, to look attractive, and we seem to equate it with good health and a sense of well-being. Even if we can't spend time bronzing our bodies in the outdoor sun, we've got other ways of simulating the experience inside, using tanning salons or a sunbed in the spare room at home. Despite the now widely recognised fact that ultra-violet rays (from the sun or simulated) can cause dangerous and sometimes life-threatening skin cancers, the ethos of 'tanned is beautiful' still prevails, and sadly underlies the newly-coined disorder of tanorexia.

Tanorexics believe that their skin, though in fact often quite dark, looks pale and insipid if they do not continually top up their tan. Sufferers who have publicly talked about the condition typically describe feeling that they look 'white' if they go two or three days without exposure. Recent research also suggests that UV rays in tanning beds produce endorphins, chemicals released from the brain that produce a sense of physical well-being. This means that obsessive tanners can actually become addicted to the 'high' that the UV rays produce.

The terms tanorexic (used both as a noun and an adjective to describe sufferers) and tanorexia (the related noun to describe the condition) hit the headlines in the UK in July 2007, when a 29-year-old mother died of skin cancer. Having been addicted to use of a sunbed between the ages of 14 and 21, her death was said to be directly attributable to tanorexia.

Background – tanorexic and tanorexia

The terms tanorexic and tanorexia have been in use during the last three or four years, and are thought to have been coined by health professionals in a bid to alert people to the dangers of excessive tanning. Tanorexia is based on the word anorexia, the term for an eating disorder characterised by low body weight and an obsessive fear of becoming too fat.

Just as anorexics think they are too fat, but are in reality excessively thin, tanorexics think they are too pale, but in reality can have very dark skin. Similar to anorexia, a key symptom of tanorexia is the fear of looking 'ugly', but rather than concerns about weight, this manifests itself in frustration about the colour of the skin and extreme anxiety if a tanning session is missed.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 3rd September 2007.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

add a word


A must for anyone with an interest in the changing face of language. The Macmillan Dictionary blog explores English as it is spoken around the world today.

global English and language change from our blog