How To Tan Like A Pro
When to throw shade and five other ways to sunbathe safely
Before the Industrial Revolution, a deathly pallor was considered the height of fashion among the upper classes. It implied a life of (indoor) leisure, as opposed to one spent toiling in the fields. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when Ms Coco Chanel returned from a Mediterranean cruise having caught too much sun, that the public’s perception of bronzed skin began to change. Perhaps not an intentional move on her part – sunscreens didn’t come into production until 1936 – but the echoes of that inadvertent fashion statement are still felt today.
For those of us who are starved of sunshine throughout the year, the merest sniff of summer is an invitation to strip down to our mid-thigh Orlebars and soak up as much ultraviolet goodness as possible. Sun exposure has been linked with the secretion of endorphins (feel-good hormones) and supplies us with all-important vitamin D. But one person’s healthy hue is another’s malignant melanoma and, despite aggressive safety campaigns across the world, many of us don’t sunbathe with enough caution or, indeed, precaution.
The global incidence of non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers has been rising since the 1970s. Research from the US National Institutes of Health and Oxford University even seems to suggest that the p53 gene responsible for tanning may also play a role in the onset of testicular cancer among white males. If that’s not enough to send you running indoors, know that sun exposure will age your skin more effectively than binge drinking, smoking, insomnia and freebasing all rolled together.
With these risks in mind, we offer you six surefire tips for tanning safely.
Understand your UVs
Safe sunning requires a basic understanding of ultraviolet radiation. There are two kinds of rays that penetrate the Earth’s ozone layer: UVA and UVB. UVB causes superficial damage, such as sunburn, and is responsible for non-melanoma cancers. It also plays a pivotal role in the production of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate and strengthens bones (there is growing evidence to suggest that vitamin D3 can also help prevent chronic diseases and fight infection by regulating the genes that control the immune system).
UVA is an insidious beast. It penetrates deep into the skin where it encourages cells called melanocytes to start producing a brown pigment known as melanin. Even though we tend to regard this effect as a “healthy” tan, melanin is the body’s defence mechanism against burning, a way to prevent UV rays from penetrating deeper into the skin and wreaking havoc with DNA. As an added bonus, UVA rips into collagen and elastin supplies, ageing you faster than you can say “group one carcinogen”.
Just because you haven’t burned (UVB), it doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the invisible wrath of UVA. It is for this reason that you need to invest a broad-spectrum sunscreen that covers both kinds of UV radiation. Be aware that the ubiquitous sun protection factor (SPF) rating pertains to UVB rays only.
Heed the red flags
Looking like a cross between Elmo and Darth Maul is not a particularly strong look. Redness, along with the symptoms listed below, are surefire signs that the body’s inflammation response has kicked in and that you need to seek shade sharpish.
First comes a flushed face, the result of dilated blood vessels. Then there’s the dehydrated and itchy-tight skin, often accompanied by an unshakable internal heat. Last but by no means least comes peeling, a sign that damaged skin cells have jumped ship in an effort to protect the rest of the body.
A good aftersun does far more than simply cool the skin. Next-generation formulas can repair cellular damage and rebuild the skin’s protective barrier. Think of aftersun like a course of antibiotics. Start using the cream or gel a couple of days before sun exposure so your skin builds up natural defences and is adequately armed before the onslaught of UV exposure. As with most things, don’t wait until it’s too late.
Decode your SPF
There is no such thing as an invincible sunblock, especially if you live in the US where the FDA has approved just a handful of decent filters. On the whole, Europeans tend to make better broad-spectrum formulas because chemists have a more comprehensive inventory of chemicals at their disposal.
Regardless, many products on the market aren’t completely photostable and none guarantees 100 per cent protection. Even Procter & Gamble, one of the biggest cosmetic manufacturers in the world, stated in 2011 that the SPF scale is “misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision”. For example, the difference between an SPF30 and an SPF50 is negligible – a 1 per cent difference in strength, according to most dermatologists – and creates a false sense of safety among consumers.
The SPF figure is intended to help the wearer determine how long they can stay in the sun before they need to reapply. It doesn’t have much to do with the strength of the product per se. To work out how long your sunscreen will last, simply multiply the amount of time in minutes that it takes you to burn (without any protection) by the SPF on the bottle.
For example, let’s say you have a pasty Anglo-Saxon complexion and it takes you roughly five minutes in the sun before you turn a fetching shade of crimson. Despite your genetic shortcoming, you are well equipped with an SPF30. Five multiplied by 30 equals 150 minutes of protection. That is, of course, provided you’ve applied enough of the stuff in the first place (see below) and haven’t washed it off in the pool within the first half an hour.
When it comes to using a new grooming product, our good intentions are promptly scuppered by poor application. How hard can it be, you may well ask, to misapply something as straightforward as a moisturiser or, indeed, a sunscreen? It turns out that most men use a lot less than the recommended amount, which is 2mg of product per square centimetre of exposed skin. That’s about four times more than you currently use. You could painstakingly measure out 2mg several times over or you could err on the side of caution and go HAM with the amount of product you use (don’t worry, a decent micronised formula won’t leave white streaks). Scrimping on sunscreen simply means you won’t get the kind of protection that’s advertised on the bottle.
When you apply a product is equally important. If you’ve purchased a chemical sunscreen, it will need time to react with your skin before it becomes active, so slather yourself in the stuff 20 minutes before you step outdoors. If you’ve purchased a mineral sunscreen, the kind that works like a physical shield by sitting on the surface of your skin, then there’s no need to wait.
Know your cut-off point
The necessity for regular shade breaks should be self-evident by now. But if your sun worship knows no limits, understand that your ability to tan has a cut-off point. In other words, your body will reach a point when it can’t produce any more melanin (the pigment responsible for your tan). Since you can’t deepen your colour, lying comatose on a sun lounger for another two hours will reap no further benefit, and may lead to more serious problems.
The bad news is that melanin reproduction isn’t instant. The body needs a good two days of sun abstinence in order to replenish 100 per cent of its stores. The moral of the story is this: don’t try to get your tan all at once. Instead, enjoy one afternoon of tanning followed by two days off. To reinforce this strategy, it’s worth pointing out that your ability to produce vitamin D also has a ceiling. If you pass the tipping point, you actively deplete vitamin D levels rather than raise them.
Boost your tan?
In addition to sunscreens and aftersuns, tan accelerators and oral supplements have made their way into the summer skincare arsenal. Tan accelerators, which should never be used as an alternative to a sunscreen, are supposed to work by stimulating the production of melanin in order to deepen or prolong a tan. Most of these products contain tyrosine, an amino acid that’s involved in the production of melanin. While tyrosine does play a pivotal role in the tanning process, the American Cancer Society says the evidence for accelerators doesn’t stack up and many remain unapproved by the FDA.
Tanning pills, which contain carotenoids (pigments that range in colour from red to yellow) along with a food colourant called canthaxanthin, are also popular. These pills do work, though not always as you will want. It should come as no surprise that these are the same ingredients that are used to make tomato and barbecue sauces as red as possible. If you want to deepen or fake your tan, ditch the pills and turn to a self-administered bronzing gel or tinted moisturiser for a more plausible hue.