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12 November 2005
A Tan To Die For
by Katherine Burnett-Watson

The images are everywhere, on billboards, in magazines and on the TV: beautiful bronzed bodies sporting year-round tans. With more and more women searching for a way to maintain their tan through the long winter months, what techniques are the most popular, and what are the risks involved in cultivating a “healthy summer glow”?

Sun Tanning
The most obvious way of tanning your skin is through exposure to the sun. The sun’s ultraviolet light stimulates the production of melanin pigment in your skin, giving your skin a darker color. The two kinds of sunlight that reach the Earth’s surface are ultraviolet A (UVA), which is also known as “black light” and promotes the tanning of skin, and ultraviolet B (UVB), which is responsible for damage such as sunburn.

Thanks to “sun safe” education campaigns it is widely known that exposure to ultraviolet sunlight causes damage to the skin, premature aging and a dramatically increased risk of skin cancer. With more than 1 million new skin cancer cases likely to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, the message to stay out of the sun is stronger than ever. But are the alternatives to sun tanning any better for you?

Tanning Salons
Salon tanning works on the same principal as sun tanning: exposing the body to ultraviolet light to promote tanning. However, the risk of sunburn is reduced through salon tanning, as tanning booths and beds only use UVA light, not UVB. But although the chances of getting sunburn are reduced by using tanning beds, the risk of getting skin cancer may be the same, if not higher.

The American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) estimate that around 1 million people visit a tanning salon every day, but many don't know that indoor tanning devices, such as tanning beds and sunlamps, emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation that's similar to, and sometimes more powerful, than the sun.

It was thought that skin cancer was caused purely through exposure to UVB. Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, is caused through this exposure. However, recent research shows that exposure to UVA light, which penetrates deeper into the skin to create a tan, is responsible for malignant melanoma, the most serious of all skin cancers. Without early detection, it is often fatal. The number of cases of melanoma is rising in the U.S., with an estimated 38,000 cases and 7,300 deaths anticipated this year.

The Food and Drug Administration discourages the use of tanning beds and sunlamps, and the American Medical Association (AMA) feels so strongly about the dangers of tanning salons and products, they have urged action that would ban the sale and use of tanning equipment for non-­medical purposes.

Tanning Pills
Illegal for sale in the U.S., but still readily available for sale over the Internet, tanning pills work on the premise of ingesting pigment-altering chemicals. There are two types of tanning pills. The first group does not rely on UV exposure to work, while the second group relies on this exposure to assist the body's production of melanin.

The sunless type of tanning pill relies on a build-up of carotenoids, the pigment that makes carrots orange, in the skin to create a color change. This is not a “tan” in the true sense, as it does not alter the body’s melanin level, and therefore does not offer any form of sun protection. The color change only lasts as long as the pills continue to be taken.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved carotenoids for use as a food coloring, it has not approved them for use in tanning pills, as the amount of carotenoid that must be ingested to create the dyeing effect necessary to simulate a tan has been deemed unsafe. Tanning pills containing canthaxanthin, the best-known form of carotenoids, have been associated with health problems, including an eye disorder called canthaxanthin retinopathy, which is the formation of yellow deposits on the eye's retina. Canthaxanthin has also been reported to cause liver damage, and a severe itching condition called urticaria, according to the AAD.

The second group of tanning pills has the active ingredient tyrosine which synthesises the production of melanin during and after exposure to UV light. The cells in the skin’s epidermis are enveloped by the pigment producing a tan. This tan is "real" and does offer some protection against further UV exposure. However, the fact that you need to expose yourself to the sun’s damaging UV rays to make this product work again brings the user at risk of sun damage and skin cancer. Tyrosine can also produce side-effects including, nausea, headaches and vomiting.

Tanning Creams and Sprays
The safest of all tanning techniques and products is externally-applied creams and lotions that dye the outer layer of the skin. Available in a plethora of applications including creams, sprays, mousses, bronzers and air-brushing techniques, the active ingredient in these products is a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA temporarily stains the skin to produce a tanned look. The effect isn't usually immediate and can take from a couple of hours to a whole day to become fully prominent. These products dye the skin, and the effect usually lasts between 5 to 7 days, by which time the skin has naturally shed its outer layer.

If you’re interested in spray-on tanning products, check out our favorite:
Pevonia Self-Tanning Emulsion Spray

Although deemed to be perfectly safe to use, people using fake tanning creams and lotions often falsely assume that fake tans offer protection from the sun’s harmful rays. Even fake tan formulations that contain sunscreens are only effective in protecting wearers from sunburn for a short time following application. Recent research shows that women who use fake tanning products are twice as likely to suffer repeated bouts of sunburn as women who don't use them, because these women are less likely to take other sun protection measures.

The dangers of exposure to ultraviolet light has been known for a long time, and UV awareness education campaigns have been in action for nearly 20 years. The AMA and the AAD have called for a ban on all tanning products for non-medical purposes. The American Cancer Society attributes the rapid rise in new skin cancer cases to the increasing popularity of tanning beds and UV utilizing products. Despite all this, it seems that in the search for a “beautiful bronzed body”, we are willing to ignore this advice and these warnings. Are we really willing to die for the perfect tan?

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