Tanning: Everything You Need To Know
Tanning is an activity that many of us enjoy and is something many of us are familiar with. In brief, it is the act of darkening our skin through UV light radiation from the Sun or even tanning lamps and beds. However, despite its popularity in our society today, things were not always that way… If you are wondering how to tan safely, how tanning actually works and why it’s so popular then allow us to explain.
The Popularity Of Tanning
Did you know, tanning was not always as popular as it is today? In fact, in the US and Europe, pre 1920s it was associated with the ‘lower classes’ who worked outdoors and were exposed to sunlight. In that age, many went to great lengths to preserve pallid skin as a sign of how ‘refined’ they were.
Further to this, outdoor clothing covered much of the body to protect it from the sun. As dermatologists, this does make us happy! However, the lead based cosmetics that many added to their skin, not so much! These were used to artificially whiten the skin, and would cause severe complications through lead poisoning.
So what changed? Firstly, science happened. Niels Finsen, was a scientist who won a Nobel prize for his work on light therapy. He discovered that exposure to sunlight would cause Vitamin D production. Further to this, he found that a lack of Vitamin D was causing rickets and therefore, sun therapy and ‘tanning’ was a desirable activity.
Secondly, fashion arrived. There are many stories surrounding the start of the tanning craze but its the fashion designer Coco Chanel who apparently put the sensation on the map. The story goes that, after accidentally burning herself on the french rivera many actually liked the look and started to tan themselves. Hence, tanning as it is today was born.
As mentioned above, tanning does have its benefits. We pretty much all rely on the sun for our Vitamin D intake. Although you can supplement Vitamin D, nothing really compares to sun exposure. Despite this being fact, it doesn’t really justify lengthy tanning sessions and artificial alternatives such as tanning beds. We only really need 15 mins of sunlight either every day or a couple of times a week depending on our skin tone.
Sunlight is also a great mood lifter but the jury is still out on why this is. It was believed to have increased endorphin levels but this no longer seems to be true (1, 2, 3). Despite this, it has been proven to improve Seasonal Affective Disorder (4, 5).
One of the main drives to excessive tanning is appearance. A study back in 2007 found that 81% of individuals believed tanning improved appearance. This is a big jump when compared to 58%, 40 years prior in 1967.
Myth-buster: It is frequently believed that using tanning beds creates a ‘base tan’. This base tan will then protect from the sun but this is incorrect. UV induced tans offer a protection level of around SPF 3 – 4 (6, 7). This does offer some protection but only blocks a very limited amount of the suns rays (8). Nowhere near enough to provide adequate protection. Stick to appropriate clothing, sunscreens and reduced sun exposure.
The Serious Side
Excessive tanning provides its own risks. Any extended exposure to the sun or UV light will involve taking a risk that could harm your skin. One of the biggest risks is skin cancer. There are three main types of skin cancer associated with tanning:
You can read more on each of these cancers on the links above and we’ve also created a handy skin cancer quiz to help you spot the signs. Some of these skin cancers are more likely to be caused by burning the skin, others by chronic exposure (9, 10, 11) . We suggest reading up on how to spot them and also how to take preventive action.
Skin ageing. Another of the negatives for tanning is how it ages your skin. This accelerates with frequent tanning due to various reasons (12). One, is our exposure to UV rays which increases the production of ‘free radicals’ – we have more details on these and antioxidants here. Likewise, infrared rays also likely play their part in breaking down collagen which causes the skin to age (13).
How To Tan Safely
So, all said and done, can you tan safely? You can up to a point! The simplest way to tan safely is to use sunscreen. We know its not a popular option since it slows down the tanning process but it is much safer. Using sunscreen will block out much of the cancer-inducing rays which is vital for protecting your skin. Learn more on how to tan safely.
Get Checked Immediately
If you do notice a spot, mole or otherwise that you are concerned about. We recommend getting checked as soon as possible. Spotting the signs of cancer early can be the defining factor in quick and effective treatment. Consult our online dermatologists today and get an answer on your concern within hours.
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Specialist doctor from the University Hospital in Gothenburg, alumnus UC Berkeley. My doctoral dissertation is about Digital Health and I have published 5 scientific articles in teledermatology and artificial intelligence.