To Tan Or Not To Tan?

My partner is fair skinned, so he burns really easily after a short time in the sun. We recently went our for a day ride on a scooter and even though we put sunscreen on his hands, the backs of them still got burnt! He was told that this wouldn’t happen if he spent more time in the sun and tanned more. So, we decided to do a bit of research about the benefits and risks of spending time in the sun.

Photo of people on the beach from Unsplash by Dan Gold

Let’s start with the benefits, because we all like a bit of positivity.

Vitamin D: get some sunshine, not sunburn

Vitamin D is necessary for strong bones and teeth. It helps your bones absorb calcium so they can stay strong. It also helps regulate your immune and neuromuscular systems. As well as fragile bones, a lack of vitamin D has been linked to multiple things including cancer, heart disease, depression, and weight gain. So, we need vitamin D.

The main natural way to get vitamin D is through sun exposure. But you don’t need as much as you’d think. The body stores vitamin D in the liver and fat tissue, which means we don’t have to blast ourselves with sunlight every single day to keep our levels up.

The best time to get vitamin D is midday. The amount of time you need to spend in the sun varies depending on where you live and the tone of your skin, but generally ranges from 2-30 minutes three times a week.

In Australia, you might only need as little as 2 minutes three times a week because the sun is so strong. In Europe you might need 30 minutes or more and take a supplement during winter to get your necessary dose of vitamin D.

Actually, in countries further north like Germany, the lack of sunlight in the winter can have harmful health consequences.

The big risk factor to tanning: skin cancer

A tan is not a healthy sign, it is a sign of skin that has been damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When you expose yourself to the sun, your skin produces a pigment called melanin to try to protect itself from the harmful effects of radiation. The reality is there is no such thing as a healthy tan.

It is a myth that if your skin is darker or you tan easily that you won’t get damaged by the sun. A tan is a sign of your skin trying to protect itself.

In fact, too much UV exposure damages your DNA. This can lead to mutations that cause melanoma (skin cancer.)

Australia has some of the worst UV exposure in the world, so we need to be particularly careful in the sun. In fact, two in three Australians develop skin cancer before age 70, and over 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer every year.

Early aging

Exposure to the sun makes you look older. 80% of fine lines, visible facial aging, and wrinkles can be attributed to UV exposure.

The way this happens is that UV damage reduces the elasticity and collagen fibres in our skin, which results in freckles, spots, thin skin, fine lines, wrinkles, and yellowing.

A study by Monash University found that Australian women are aging 20 years faster than those in the US due to sun exposure.

Damage to your eyes

UV radiation causes damage to our eyes, which builds up over our lifetime and can cause permanent damage to your eyesight.

Short term sun damage can be photokeratitis, which is an inflamed cornea, or photoconjunctivitis, which when the mucous membranes on the front of the eyeball and inside the eyelids become inflamed. Symptoms include a gritty feeling in the eye, swelling, and blurred vision.

Long term, the effects are cumulative, which means that people who work outdoors are more likely to experience eye problems at a younger age. UV exposure is a known cause of cataracts, which is a clouding of the lens of the eye that results in vision loss.

UV exposure can also cause squamous cancer cells in the eye, as well as skin cancer on the eyelids, which is especially common in Australia. I was surprised to find that in Australia it is recommended that we wear sunglasses at all times while outside during daylight hours. Apparently UV radiation can be high even on cloudy days.

Protective measures

In case you were wondering what you can do to protect yourself from the sun, here are five protective measures you can take:

  • Slap on that sunscreen 30 minutes before going into the sun, and reapply it every two hours
  • Wear sunsafe clothing – clothes that protect more of your skin from sun exposure
  • Wear a wide brimmed hat
  • Put on some sunglasses
  • Sit in the shade
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