The Myth of the Healthy Tan

A hundred years ago, Caucasian women were vigilant about shielding their skin from the sun. In the early 1900s, no self-respecting woman would have ventured outdoors (and certainly not to the beach) without the cover of long sleeves, a parasol, and maybe a sun bonnet or a wide-brimmed hat as well. This obsession with fair skin had absolutely nothing to do with health. Pale skin was “in.” More than that, a lily-white complexion was a status symbol. Ladies of wealth and luxury were identifiable by their fair skin. Socially, the paler one’s complexion, the better.

When I first learned about this I couldn’t help but wonder, “How in the world did this turn-of-the century passion for pale skin evolve into our present obsession with tanning beds and self-tanning products?” To find out, I embarked on a fact-finding mission.

I learned that the predilection for pale skin began to wane in the 1920s. A new fascination with looking bronzed was apparently set in motion when trend-setter Coco Channel, vacationing in the French Riviera, got an accidental sunburn that turned into a tan. This “set off an international frenzy,” according to a article titled “A Brief History of the Tan” [Lauren Finney,“A Brief History of the Tan: From fair to flamboyantly bronzed and back again.” /JUL 18, 2016]

By the 1940s the desire for pale skin was finally eclipsed by the fashion-forward inventions of the bikini and the T-shirt. People began spending more leisure time traveling to beaches and socializing at the pool. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the desire for the sun-kissed look of bronzed skin was further popularized by the California surfing culture, the debut of Malibu Barbie, and the iconic Coppertone ad campaign. As a result, a “healthy tan” became widely regarded as hip, chic, and cool, and has remained en vogue right up to the present moment.

There is just one problem with this, and it’s a big one.  There is no such thing as a “healthy” tan.

By way of explanation, let’s start with the bottom line: when skin turns tan, it is not a sign of health – it’s a sign of damage. The culprit is ultraviolet radiation, which damages the DNA in the cells of the skin. When your body senses danger from ultraviolet radiation, it attempts to protect you by making more pigment to darken your skin. Skin makes this defensive move on your behalf whether the ultraviolet rays are coming from the sun or from a tanning bed.

Skin darkens itself in response to both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Overexposure to either type increases the chances for skin cancer. In addition, UVA rays cause sunburn; UVB rays prematurely age the skin, creating age spots and wrinkles. Even if your skin tone is naturally dark, which does provide extra protection, too much exposure to UVA and UVB radiation can still put you at risk for skin cancer.

According to skin health professionals, everyone, regardless of skin tone, should make liberal use of sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommendations are:

  • Use water-resistant sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and broad-spectrum protection. “Broad-spectrum” means that the product provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Reapply sunscreen to all exposed skin at least every two hours. Reapplication is needed even on cloudy days, and especially after swimming or doing anything that causes sweating.
  • Keep in mind that sunscreen loses its potency over time. Before using sunscreen that is left over from previous years, check the bottle for the expiration date.

A final, parting thought. When it comes to sun safety, we can take a lesson from what the world learned the hard way about smoking: it’s not smart to allow advertisers and popular culture to convince us that being trendy is more important than our health. Let’s be more skeptical of messages from those with a profit motive, and give at least equal weight to the wisdom of health experts such as the American Cancer Society and the American Dermatological Society.



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