One of the things Canadians love about summer is the long hours of sunlight to indulge in hiking, water sports and picnics, not to speak of tanning. These days it seems Northerners can't wait for the summer sun anymore, and spend a week or two in some country closer to the equator during dark winter months. One of the main pastimes is lying on a white sandy beach soaking up the sun. While we are fully aware that over-exposure to the ultra-violet (UV) rays of the sun is dangerous, contributing to premature aging of the skin and increase in the risk of skin cancer, we long for the sun-kissed look of a golden-brown tan. In answer to this dilemma, sunless tanners appear on the horizon in the form of tanning beds, self-tanning lotions and sprays, and even tanning pills. Can we have our cake and eat it too—that is, acquire the golden glow of a suntan with no fears of skin damage? It's time to examine the pros and cons of sunless tanning products, and as usual there are two sides to the story.
On one hand, it seems tanning beds are the ideal way to get a healthy-looking glow—one doesn't have to wait until a warm sunny day, but simply visit one of the ubiquitous tanning parlours, lie back and allow a professional to turn on the UV rays. It's possible to get an even brown look without blotches—not always achievable outdoors because of the vagaries of weather. In addition, it's true that tanning beds help increase blood concentrations of vitamin D just like the sun does. Often in short supply because of short winter days, vitamin D is a nutrient that helps in absorption of calcium, imperative for building strong and healthy bones (among performing other roles). Another advantage of tanning beds is to treat psoriasis, a condition that results in areas of thick skin as cells grow too quickly.
Browning of skin
Unfortunately, tanning beds send down the same harmful UV radiation that the sun does—the browning of the skin that results is due to is the same process. The rays may cause the loss of elasticity in the skin, leading to premature wrinkling. They also affect the eyes, hastening formation of cataracts and photoconjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva or membranes that line the inside of eyelids) which can be irreversible. More worrisome than these conditions is the increase in risk of squamous cell carcinoma which forms at the base of the outer layers of skin, as well as the more deadly melanoma, an aggressive form of cancer that begins in the cells that produce skin pigment or melanin.
Obviously over-exposure to radiation from a tanning bed could cause “sunburn,” but the strength of the rays and length of exposure can be controlled, so it is imperative to seek a place where the operators are certified. Even so, the rays have been known to cause itching, skin rashes and nausea. Should one use tanning beds? The decision is an individual one—just as is the decision whether to lie for an hour on a beach in full sun—but it is important to be aware of the risks.
An inexpensive alternative to tanning beds you might wish to consider is a self-tanning lotion or spray that is applied to the skin for a tanned look. The active ingredient in sunless tanning products is a colour additive known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This product interacts with amino acids in the top layer of skin to produce a brownish pigment. This colouring typically wears off in four or five days as the skin sheds dry cells.
Is this product safe for use? It has been approved in Canada on the basis of tests that have shown no harm from its use. It appears the DHA does not penetrate beyond the stratum corneum (outer layer) of skin. While DHA is not harmful, it may be derived from vegetable sources (beet or cane sugar) or from synthetic sources, so if you prefer one or the other check the label. Since it is important to avoid harmful chemicals and additives some self-tanners may contain, check the label to ensure the products contain “friendly” ingredients such as aloe vera, and plant-based oils and butters instead of ingredients such as parabens and silicone.
Self tanning products come in both sprays and lotions, and each has it own drawbacks. The spray-on mechanism provides more even coverage than application of a lotion. Sprays, on the other hand create more of a mess as wayward splashes land on sinks, mirrors and floor. Care should be taken to protect the eyes, mouth and nose when using either product. In both cases, it takes a few hours after application before the brown tan colour appears on the skin. It should be noted these products do not contain sunscreen unless stated on the label.
Sunless tanning pills which usually contain the colour additive canthaxanthin are not recommended.
This column is sponsored by Good 'n' Natural in Steinbach.