Tanned, golden-brown skin is what we struggle hard to get every summer, or even all year round. We look healthier with a bit of a tan, and imperfections miraculously disappear – no one can argue with that. It was not always like this, though. Tanned skin was not considered attractive many years ago. On the contrary, it was a sign of outdoor labor whereas pale skin was an indicator of leisure and elite status. It was Coco Chanel who turned the tables on the matter and she did so accidentally.
In 1923 she went on a sailing trip in Cannes and caught a lot of sun without realising it. So, when she returned from her trip she was all golden brown and immediately a trend was born. And since then an obsession has been observed.
What is a tan?
There are two types of UV radiation that penetrate the skin:
- UV-A rays, that penetrate the deeper layers of the skin and are often associated with allergic reactions, such as a rash
- UV-B rays, that penetrate the top layers of the skin and are responsible for sunburns
Both UV-B and UV-A rays damage the skin and can lead to skin cancer. Tanning salons use lamps that emit both UV-A and UV-B radiation. (Source: FDA)
Tan is the way our skin reacts to UV rays that the sun emits. The skin is being “attacked” by UV rays and in order to defend itself, it produces melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin colour. So, a tan is a far cry from a healthy glow, it is the way for our skin to let us know it is under “attack”.
The minute summer approaches, we are eager to know all the latest fashion trends in eye-wear and swimwear that we often forget the possible health hazards that come with sun expose. Over time this can lead to:
- premature aging
- eye problems, like cataract
- skin damage
- skin cancer
Worldwide, yearly more than 3.5 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer. If it is diagnosed early it is treatable, still, prognosis worsens considerably when it has spread to other parts of the body. In the U.S, more than 9,400 people died of skin cancer in 2012.
Through the years tanning has become a cause of great concern, due to the detrimental effects on your health. Excessive sun exposure, leading to serious sunburns at least once in your life time, puts you at risk for skin cancer.
Blocking out the sun completely is not a solution though, as some might think since it can have detrimental effects on our health too. We need the sun to make Vitamin D. This type of vitamin helps our body absorb calcium to build strong bones as it is also protective against cancer development. So, even though too much sun exposure may lead to the development of skin cancer, moderate sun exposure is necessary for anti-cancer purposes.
The rise of tanning beds
Scientists started a campaign against sun exposure and that led to the invention of tanning devices (tanning/sunbeds), else known as indoor tanning. Many manufacturers state that sunbeds are 100% safe but that is not true. Sunbeds use UV radiation to cause tanning of the skin, exactly like the sun does.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, announced in 2009 that tanning devices that emit UV radiation are more dangerous than previously thought and moved these devices into the highest cancer risk category: “carcinogenic to humans.”
What is really worrying about sunbeds, despite all the available information regarding their riskiness, is the increased use of indoor tanning from teens and young people under the age of 25. In fact, 76 percent of melanomas found in women between the ages of 18 and 29 are associated with tanning bed use. (Source: Science Daily)
So, since the sun and tanning beds were not very safe tanning options, a healthier way needed to be found. A way that leads to the introduction of sunless tanning creams/lotions. A simple application of a self-tanning cream in well moisturised skin seemed to be the perfect alternative and cosmetic companies saw their sales rising.
Still, is this the best option for a sun-kissed glowing skin?
Self-tanning: danger behind the beauty
As self-tanning can be achieved without the need of a sun bed/sun, hence UV rays, it was considered to be the safest choice. Still, research on the matter is growing increasingly wary of the chemicals that these self-tanning products contain and their long-term health effect.
- DHA (Dihydroxyacetone)
For a self-tanning product to work it needs to have something that can attach to your skin and make it darker in colour without washing away easily. This “something” is DHA, a colourless compound that forms a chemical reaction with amino acids present on the skin surface resulting in the darkening of the skin.
DHA is listed in the regulations worldwide as a colour additive for use in imparting colour to the human body. However, its use in cosmetics–including sunless “tanning” products–should be restricted to the external application only and externally applied cosmetics are those “applied only to external parts of the body and not to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane“. (Source: FDA)
Initially, it was thought that DHA remained on the skin’s surface and did not penetrate its inner layers. So far so good. Research has shown, however, that a small percentage of DHA is actually penetrating the deeper layers of the skin and according to Dr. Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of Dermatology, “any absorption into the living areas of the skin could be pose a potential risk” and the fact that some of it can actually get into the bloodstream raises further concerns that need to be further explored.
Still, self-tanning lotions and creams, as all those that use them know, are quite difficult to apply in order to get an even result. Cosmetic companies came to the rescue once again, they introduced spray tanning. Many beauty salons offer this service, prompting people to stay away from the sun but still look beautifully sun-kissed.
This new technique, however, is not approved by any health organisation worldwide as it cannot guarantee that the spraying solution will not get into the eyes, lips and nose. Additionally, there is not information about the effects inhalation of the spraying product will have on the lungs.
Another study demonstrated that the way DHA binds to the amino acids of our skin actually prevents the absorption of UV-B, and thereby blocks the creation of the anti-cancer vitamin D. In other words, DHA acts like a topical sunscreen and since it does not wear off after a couple of hours, that means you are wearing sunscreen constantly for days. So, you constantly blocking the production of vitamin D.
It is used in lotions for longer lasting results and to prevent the orange tan effect BUT it is genotoxic (alters your DNA) and also blocks vitamin D production like DHA.
- Ethoxydiglycol (Transcutol CG)
It is hazardous upon ingestion and inhalation, a mild skin irritant, known to be most dangerous to the kidneys and contains ether, which has been linked to cancers, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergic reactions and disruptions in the hormones.
Different types of are used that accumulate in the breasts, liver and fatty tissues and they are also known for causing skin irritation, dry skin and triggering allergic reactions.
The lesser of all evils
If a beauty product contains all these hazardous compounds, how can it be considered as the healthy alternative to tanning? The truth is that it cannot. There is no healthy way to have a tan because tanning is not healthy. It gives a “healthy-looking” glow to our skin but tanning equals skin damage. Still, because a lovely summery skin glow is something everyone wants the best way to protect ourselves is by going the natural way and choosing sun as a mean of tanning BUT with extreme moderation.
Dr. David R. Byrd, director of surgery at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine recommends, in order to minimize the risk of skin cancer, people to use daily sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and avoid spending any amount of time in the sun between 10am and 4 pm.
The truth is sunscreens can be unhealthy too but they are the lesser of all evils. I am not referring to the newly lanched sunscreen product that claims to offer protection against UV damage for up to three hours just by swallowing a mouthful of a solution which its inventor says is made of 100 percent water. There is no scientific evidence to back up any of the company’s claims. Whenever a sunscreen is necessary, choose one that contains zinc oxide instead of oxybenzone, since oxybenzone can be genotoxic with irreversible and unpredictable life-long effects, for both you and your family.
A healthy diet of vegetables rich in vitamin A and other carotenoids, like carrots, sweet red peppers, papaya, can help us get that golden glow BUT it also helps in the proper development of our body and immune system while offering antioxidant protection to our cells against the damage UV radiation causes to our body.
Enjoy a safe summer!