What is a tan?

The history of the tan

We might find it difficult to believe in this day and age, but not so long ago having a tan was considered terribly unfashionable. Once upon a time, suntans belonged to labourers who spent all day under the elements. The upper classes spent all day indoors, carrying parasols when outdoors. Heaven forbid they should break out in so much as a freckle! This desire dated back much further. Greek and Roman women would whiten their skin using a less than healthy lead and chalk mixture, whilst Elizabethan women painted on blue veins to give their skin a translucent appearance.

This all changed in the 1920s when Coco Chanel (who else?) caught a few too many rays whilst holidaying on a yacht in Cannes. She returned golden brown, all of a sudden the tan was the ‘in’ thing, and has more or less remained that way to this day. Nowadays, there are more ways to get a tan than sending yourself off to sunnier climes. The advent of self-tanning products and sunbeds has made having a constant tan achievable and desirable for everyone.

Today, having a tan seems to be a less desirable social norm. Research has shown a link between skin cancers and UV exposure which has made a lot of people reconsider their tanning habits. Now it is accepted that a tan is your body’s way of telling you it has been damaged by the sun, so with that embracing the ‘pale and interesting’ look has also become more acceptable.

How can I tan safely?

Research has shown that any tanning method that involves UV rays is damaging, causing skin ageing and leaving the tanner with an increased risk of developing skin cancer. That means that sunbathing and using a sunbed both come with dangers. "We don’t recommend using sunbeds at all, but if sunbathing is for you, make sure to use a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF30 and good UVA protection. Look out for the UVA in a circle symbol on the tube, which indicates that it meets EU requirements for broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB. Altruist products have an SPF of at least 30 and all have broad spectrum protection, so when applied frequently and in the correct quantities, they can help you enjoy the sun safely.

Realistically speaking, the only safe tan is a fake tan. Classic fake tan products use a chemical derived from sugar cane, called DHA, which reacts with amino acids on the skin’s surface to cause a browning effect - that’s what makes that… interesting biscuity smell that a lot of fake tans now are still known for. Formulations are improving and more natural forms of DHA are being used which reduces the smell and also makes for a more naturally bronzed look. In 2010 it was confirmed that fake tan products which contain DHA don’t pose any risk to your health. One this to bear in mind is that, much like make-up products, fake tan that says it contains an SPF will not necessarily protect you from UVA rays so you should still use a sunscreen.

Whilst most at-home tanning methods are safe if used properly, there is one product that is not. Melanotan is a synthetic hormone that is injected to boost melanin production in the body. It is unlicensed and illegal in the UK, and users have reported significant changes in moles - which is one of the symptoms of melanoma - after as little as two weeks of use.

Is there anything else I can do to healthily boost my tan?

Research from the University of St Andrews has shown that certain dietary changes can give your skin a healthy glow through a process called ‘carotenoid colouration’. No, it’s not going to turn you a carrot shade of orange, but eating foods that are high in carotenoids has been shown to lead to a noticeable change in skin colour in as little as six weeks. As carotenoid colouration is different from melanoid colouration (which is the damaging changes that happen through suntanning) you’ll notice a more subtle change than you would from the sun. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as further research from the University of Leeds found that people perceived those with a ‘tan’ from carotenoid colouration as being more attractive than those with melanoid colouration.

A healthy-looking glow and reducing the risk of skin cancer? Sounds pretty good to us. To boost your natural glow you should aim to an additional two portions of foods that are high in carotenoids which include sweet potatoes, carrots (duh), kale, melon, broccoli, pumpkin, spinach, mangoes, tomatoes, red peppers and peaches. Pretty much any fruit, vegetable or herb that is richly coloured red, yellow, orange or dark green contains carotenoids - you don’t really need to remember a list of them because nature has kindly labelled them for you. Carotenoids also have a bunch of other benefits including antioxidant effects, supporting your immune and reproductive systems, and keeping your bones healthy by being pro-vitamin A nutrients.

What should I do if I do get sunburnt?

Whilst prevention is better than the cure (which honestly doesn’t really exist) many people have and will experience sunburn at some point in their lives. When you get a tan, your skin is telling you that it’s damaged. Sunburn occurs after extreme exposure and indicates severe damage. Skin becomes red due to the body’s response to trying to repair the damaged skin by dilating blood vessels. Skin peels after sunburn as the body is trying to get rid of those damaged cells that risk becoming cancerous.

Many instances of sunburn occur because best efforts of applying enough sunscreen frequently fail. If you do find yourself getting sunburnt, the first thing you need to do is get yourself out of the sun straight away - that includes away from windows! Make sure you don’t get dehydrated and drink plenty of water. Most sunburn can be taken care of at home, but if your skin is blistering seek medical advice. Use a light-weight after-sun product and look out for ingredients such as aloe vera, clove, liquorice, lavender and cucumber - all of which help reduce irritation, pain, and redness whilst helping to soothe the burn. It’s important that you stay out of the sun until your burn has gone down considerably - keep yourself shaded and use plenty of high SPF sunscreen, with a high UVA star rating if you do need to go outside.

Are freckles also a sign of damage?

In terms of their own history, freckles are a bit like the tan. Largely considered a sign of poor sun-care habits, or something to be made fun of in the school playground, they’ve now (much like the tan) been reclaimed as a sign of being fresh-faced and youthful.

Whether you have freckles or not is determined by your DNA. If you have freckles, your skin produces melanin unevenly - not because you have more cells that produce melanin, but because some of the cells you do have naturally produce more melanin than others. Freckles will increase with sun exposure - either in terms of you getting more, or the ones you have becoming more prominent.

However, where a tan is a sign of damaged DNA cells, freckles are not. Yes, if you have freckles you have an increased risk of getting sunburnt and of developing skin cancer, but the freckles themselves aren’t a sign that this is going to happen. Freckles are a reason to be extra vigilant when you’re in the sun, but them coming out a little more when you’ve been exposed to UV rays and them disappearing in the cooler months isn’t a sign of you handling your sun-care badly.

Enjoy the sun safely with Altruist

Altruist Dermatologist Sunscreen has been developed by consultant dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon Dr Andrew Birnie in conjunction with some of Europe’s leading formulation scientists. Their mission is to reduce the incidence of skin cancer through increasing use of quality sunscreen, along with better education and awareness.