In medical school we learn about how the body should work, how things can go wrong, and how we can fix things when they go wrong. We learn about every system in the body… including the skin (and tanning!). I wrote a post while I was in the dermatology course called ‘Beauty Tips from a Medical Student.’ The beauty industry is HUGE and makes a lot of money, sometimes in an unethical way. The truth is, the skin is a living system of the human body and there is a whole specialty of medicine dedicated to learning and treating it. Beauty companies claim to have created the perfect product to clear skin or prevent wrinkles… and sometimes there is just not enough science to back it up. My post focused on what to look for in beauty products and which ones will actually work (and how to save money and avoid scams!).
Now that I am studying for boards, I am going over dermatology again and remembering how interesting it is! The summer months are coming up, so I thought I would write a post about tanning. What it is, how it happens, and how bad is it, really?
Some people are dead set that tanning is bad 100%, no exceptions and they avoid the sun at all cost. Well, this is not completely true. You need the sun (to a certain extent) to absorb vitamins. If the sun was actually bad, humans would have adapted to living in places with no sunlight long ago. Also, it is easier for health professionals to broadly say that tanning and being in the sun is bad to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.
If you want the quick and dirty: The actual process of tanning is not bad for you (it is actually protective!). However, the other things that UVA/UVB rays do to your skin can cause aging or cancer. Read on to find out more!
How Tanning Works
Your skin contains cells called melanocytes. These cells produce a molecule called melanin that is responsible for the pigment, or color, of your skin. Exposure to UVB (sun rays that penetrate the skin) cause melanocytes to increase melanin production. Melanin then absorbs this UVB and becomes darker to prevent UVB from penetrating deeper. So essentially, the tan you see is a physiological response to the sun to prevent damage.
Sunburn happens when there is not enough melanin to absorb the UVB exposure you are receiving. The mass amount of UV exposure causes a local inflammatory response (the sunburn) and damage to your DNA (more on this next).
What the Heck is UVA/UVB?!
All light rays fall on a spectrum. This includes x-rays, ultraviolet (UV) rays, and visible light. These different types of light have different wavelengths, allowing them to penetrate (or not penetrate) material. For example, x-rays can penetrate through a lot more than visible light. UV rays come from the sun (along with visible light), but they can penetrate your skin.
UVA (320-400 nm) – The larger wavelength allows deeper penetration into the skin. UVA is responsible for the aging effects of the sun. So although UVB can produce a tan, UVA penetrates deeper and causes damage.
UVB (290-320 nm) – These shorter wavelengths do not penetrate as deep and get absorbed into melanin. These rays are responsible for your tan, but they can also cause damage.
So why is this light bad? Well, the UV rays can cause chemical bonds to form in your DNA that should not be there (if you want to get science-y: it causes covalent bonds to form between thymine or cytosine residues, forming pyrimidine dimers). The truth: this actually happens all the time in our body (sun or no sun)! We have repair mechanisms that are constantly going through and correcting these abnormal bonds. It is when these repair mechanisms miss something that causes cancer (more below). But first, how does this cause wrinkles?
All about Aging
The molecules in your skin that give it its youthful appearance are collagen and elastin. The collagen gives the skin its structure while the elastin allows it to stretch. Without these molecules, your skin begins to sag and become wrinkly. Overtime, sun exposure causes your body to produce more enzymes that degrade collagen. The truth: we are actually degrading and building up collagen all the time. When we are younger, we are building up more than we are degrading. As we age, we end up degrading more collagen than we are building up. Sun exposure can speed up this process. Anti-aging treatments work to increase collagen production to counteract the bodies natural tendency to degrade collagen overtime.
As I stated above, UV rays can cause abnormal bonds in DNA. However, this also happens regardless of whether we are exposed to sun or not. Natural repair mechanisms in our body fix these bonds, leaving us cancer free. It is when one of these abnormal bonds make it past our repair mechanisms that we get cancer. Basically, sun exposure means more chances for DNA damage. Interestingly enough, sun exposure also up-regulates repair mechanisms. So, sun exposure can damage DNA… but sun exposure can also increase your body’s ability to repair DNA. We don’t fully know what causes this damaged DNA to escape repair mechanisms to cause cancer. However, we do know that people who have fairer skin and lighter eyes are more prone to getting skin cancer. These people also have less melanocytes and less melanin production.
While cancer research has definitely grown, there is still a lot that we don’t know about it. Fun fact: Camel urine is used in the Arabian Peninsula to treat skin cancer. The truth is, there isn’t a lot of evidence based medicine to back it up, but I did find an article from the NCBI where researches have looked into this! Check it out here!
So… Should I Tan?
The bottom line is that tanning in and of itself is not bad. However, its pretty hard to avoid UVA penetration deeper into the skin while you tan. At the same time, your body is going to accumulate DNA damage and decrease collagen production whether or not you are exposed to sunlight. However, sun exposure can speed up this naturally occurring process. So in my opinion, don’t avoid the sun at all costs, but definitely protect your skin. Like most things in life, everything in moderation.
A great alternative to sunbathing? Self -tanners of course! It can be hard to choose the right product, however. You want something that isn’t going to be streaky or orange. For me personally, I also look for a face self tanner that does not cause breakouts.
I have found that Vita Liberata and St. Tropez work really well for me. They produce a natural tan color and are all very easy to apply. My number one concern is choosing a product that doesn’t cause breakouts, and I have never broken out from using either of those brands!
Vita Liberata takes the win when it comes to products that give you a natural tan and are good for your skin. They have a ‘Self Tanning Night Moisture Mask‘ that I cannot get enough of. It is designed to build a tan gradually, but it also is a skin mask that nourishes your skin. Apply it a couple of nights per week to keep up a healthy glow or a few days in a row before an event. I also love Vita Liberata’s ‘Body Blur.’ It is a moisturizing body cream that provides an instant tan that lasts 24 hours. This is perfect for touching up your tan if you are going to an event or on vacation.