Does The "Healthy Tan" Exist?
By Tyler Woodward
Is the infamous golden-bronze tan that many of us desire really destroying our health?
Most skin experts today will tell you to avoid the sun, use sunblock whenever you’re exposed to the sun, even when indoors. Yet, we also know that sunlight is absolutely essential to our health. So which one is it, should we relish in the sun or shun it?
Why Do We Tan?:
Your skin color and your ability to tan is due to a protein known as melanin. Melanin is a type of pigment that’s responsible for regulating your skin color, the more melanin you produce the darker your skin is. As the sun intensifies throughout the spring and summer, our body is exposed to increasing amounts of ultraviolet radiation through sunlight. When our skin is exposed to enough radiation it triggers a series of chemical reactions that triggers melanogenesis or the production of melanin, AKA the tan!
Melanin serves as our body’s built-in sunblock, helping to block the sun’s radiation from passing into the deeper layers of our skin where it can damage underlying cells and the DNA within them.
While the consensus by many today is that sunlight and tanning is inherently harmful, it’s not the whole story. If tanning was inherently “bad” for you then we would expect the people that naturally produce the highest amounts of melanin, or those that naturally have the darkest skin, to have the highest rates of skin cancer, but the opposite is true…
“Skin cancer is more common in fair skinned people because they have less of the protective pigment called melanin. People with darker skin are less likely to get skin cancer. But they can still get skin cancer”.
Tanning like many things is a stress placed on the body, just like the stress you get from a bad day at work or hitting a hard workout in the gym. This doesn’t inherently make tanning “bad”, it just means that it is an external “stress” or demand being placed upon the body which your body then must recover.
In fact, we know tanning in many ways is beneficial to an extent. The natural increase in melanin production serves as a natural sunblock allowing us to spend increased amounts of time in the sun without becoming sunburnt. It's for this same reason that people with darker skin tones are significantly less likely to get sunburned even in intense sun.
Tanning also likely functions as a natural defense mechanism from preventing us from producing too much Vitamin D, resulting in vitamin D toxicity or hypercalcemia. The darker our skin becomes, the more radiation we need to absorb to produce the same amount of vitamin D.
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The Endless Benefits Of Sunshine:
Not to mention the seemingly endless benefits of sunlight exposure including:
- Allowing for vitamin D synthesis, a necessary part of bone health
- Necessary for setting the circadian rhythm and optimal melatonin production
- Lack of sunlight is strongly associated with seasonal affective disorder
- Sunlight may help heal certain skin conditions including:
- Preliminary research has found that sunlight may be an effective treatment for:
The list goes on… And while most of these benefits are not 100% proven there is a lot of research to suggest that sunlight has protective effects for many diseases and conditions, so we should not be so quick to write sunlight off as “bad”.
In fact this article states, “Darker skinned people are particularly at risk of skin cancer where the body has less direct sun exposure. For example, the palms of hand and soles of the feet”. This implies that a lack of adequate sun exposure to a given area, could actually increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer!
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How To Tan For Better Health:
It’s well established that too much sun exposure will result in a host of detrimental effects like inflammation, oxidative stress, DNA damage, the breakdown of collagen and elastin fibers, and potentially skin cancer. The key to building a healthy tan comes down to getting enough sunlight without overdoing it, resulting in sunburn.
To do this means we need to gradually increase the amount of sunlight our skin can handle. The best way to do this is by getting just a few minutes of sunlight everyday whether it’s drinking your morning coffee or eating lunch outside or even just taking a short walk. It’s also important to not put on sunblock when you go outside, as sunblock and sunscreens block UV radiation and also inhibit vitamin D synthesis.
This way when it comes time to lay out on the beach you’ve already got a solid base-tan and adequate levels of vitamin D which may exert a protective effect against radiation.
If you’re looking for a natural sunblock alternative my personal recommendation is coconut oil. Coconut oil is a predominantly saturated fat with a number of health benefits, an SPF of about 8 and coincidentally happens to melt right around 98℉. Additionally, unlike most commercial sunblocks coconut oil will not block out the UVB radiation which is necessary to produce Vitamin D.
Lastly, I would like to mention that tanning beds are not a close substitute for natural sunlight. Tanning beds are a highly concentrated form of UVA radiation without the full spectrum of sunlight including: UVA, UVB, UVC and infrared radiation the sun normally exhibits. The protective effects of sunlight are likely due to the full spectrum array of light the sun gives, not solely the UVA radiation used to tan in tanning beds.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good