What is a tan?
A tan, put simply, is the process whereby our skin colour is darkened or tanned. A tan is never permanent because our skin naturally exfoliates. This causes the tanned skin cells to slough off as the new cells are formed in the basal layer of the skin.
How does our skin tan?
Melanocytes are cells that produce the skin pigment melanin - Melanin is held in your skin to give you tan colour. Melanocytes are specialised cells that produce little granules of pigment called Melanosomes. The melanosomes contain the actual melanin pigment.
When the skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce melanin pigment as a defence mechanism to shield the cells from the damaging UV rays. Sun exposure triggers the melanocytes to produce melanosomes that contain melanin. Melanin acts as a protective, biological armour - even a ‘healthy, bronze glow’ is actually a form of sun damage. The pigment blocks UV radiation from hitting the nucleus and the most valuable parts of your cells. When pigment piles up, your skin looks more tanned. The more threatened your skin is, the more it works to create pigment shields which is why you get darker the longer you stay out in the sun.
Why do we crave a tanned complexion? It is believed that tanning became popular in 1923 after photographs of Coco Chanel sunburned in the South of France circulated and became images of beauty and relaxation. Even today, in the Western world, tanned skin is a sign of affluence and leisure - who doesn’t wish to be on holiday? However standards of beauty vary and pale skin is sought-after amongst Eastern cultures.
The societal influence and desire to tan have also given rise to a culture of ignoring the serious dangers of UV exposure. Statistics from Cancer Research UK (2018) show that over the last decade, melanoma skin cancer incident rates have increased by 45% in the UK.
What are the risks?
The sun is damaging our skin every day all year round - even on the cloudiest of days. UV is the main cause of premature ageing, it's a known carcinogen to humans damaging our DNA and in the worst case leads to skin cancer.
Almost all melanoma and skin cancers are caused by over exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. The damage is cumulative, irreparable and increases with each exposure.
How do you protect yourself?
Ditch the sunbeds and invest and use a quality sun screen. Without UV protection the sun starts to penetrate deep into your skin layers contributing to free radical damage, pigmentation, collagen breakdown and immunosuppression. QSun is a pretty cool and free App to get sun safety recommendations, tailored to your skin type and personalised to your location.
I believe now is an important time to point out that the size of the melanosomes produced by the melanocytes is THE ONLY THING that determines our skin colour. We actually inherit the amount of pigment produced by our individual melanocytes from our parents. I have decided to better educate myself since the death of George Floyd and I’ve put together an Anti-Racist Resource page. If you have found this blog useful in way I really hope you can take a look at the resource page and pick something to listen to or read.
We can all do better, together, for our future.