What you should know about tanning

As the seemingly interminable winter comes to a close at Radford University, university grounds become speckled with sunbathers. Everyone is anxious to recharge from Mother Nature’s giant battery in the sky, and many students seem determined to start on that sexy tan or get burned trying.

So what actually happens on a biological level when you start to tan? It’s all about melanocytes, skin cells that produce melanin when exposed to ultraviolet light. Melanin is a pigment that absorbs UV radiation and thereby protects your skin. So far, so good — everyone has heard of melanin. What you might not know, though, is that your body produces two kinds of melanin.

If you are not careful in the sun, you will not be smiling long. Image from Creative Commons.
If you are not careful in the sun you will not be smiling long. Image from Creative Commons.

Eumelanin is what gives that delicious sun-kissed look all those bikini-clad students are hoping for. Phaeomelanin, however, produces a reddish color. The latter pigment is more produced in higher quantity by blondes and redheads, which means those folks won’t tan so well.

Of course, tanning is not without its risks. Indoor tanning has gotten a lot of attention for possible links to skin cancer, but even the natural route comes with perils.

Perhaps the most common affliction is sunburn. Sunburn happens when UV radiation damages your skin cells, and white blood cells attack and remove the damaged cells, causing itching and peeling.

Another danger of too much exposure to the sun is that it can cause your skin to age prematurely — an ironic fate, given tanning’s association with beauty. Too much exposure to UV radiation breaks down the collagen and elastin fibers which keep your skin looking young and healthy, and causes wrinkles and a leathery texture that Granny Clampett would be proud of.

Last, but not least, the Big Bad — skin cancer. There are two types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma is the more dangerous kind, and develops in the melanocytes mentioned earlier. Luckily, melanoma is often treatable when detected early, and is the more rare of the two kinds.

Non-melanoma occurs in the squamous or basal cells in sun-exposed areas, such as the face, ears and backs of hands.

It has been said that there is no such thing as a safe tan. Despite that, scads of young folk are still going to pursue that elusive golden skin as the weather warms, so there are some tips you can follow to reduce the risks involved.

First, and most obvious, apply sunscreen or sunblock. Remember to reapply it regularly if you’re out in the sun for any length of time.

Second, and also obvious, limit your time in the sun. Work on that tan gradually, rather than trying to bake yourself over the course of a day.

Last, and perhaps somewhat counterintuitive, take off your sunglasses. It seems that seeing the sunlight will actually trigger production of melanin — so the quicker that gets started, the less time you need to spend tanning. Of course, it’s still important to protect your eyes from UV radiation, so a possible solution is to start tanning without sunglasses, then put them on later.

Just remember, it’s fun to spend time in the sun, but less fun to wind up with a nasty case of sunburn or skin cancer. Balance your summer sexiness with these safety practices, and partake of Mother Nature in moderation!