I’m pasty. I can’t help it and I blame my Danish ancestry. In the winter, I’m fluorescently translucent with all my blue veins on display. I don’t tan readily, though once I’ve gotten started, it doesn’t take much to maintain it. Last summer, I laid out on the back deck several times, hoping to take the glare off my legs a bit and nothing really happened. So this year, I decided to start frequenting my friendly neighborhood tanning salon.
What began as a pure case of vanity recently turned into something much more. I read Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition and she briefly discusses the benefits of moderate sun exposure for—get this—UVA and UVB protection. You don’t hear that from your dermatologist.
The melanocytes in our outermost layers of skin release a chemical that spurs the production of melanin. It’s this melanin, a skin pigment, that produces that sexy, Baywatch glow. Melanin, unlike sunscreens which only block UVB rays, blocks the entire spectrum of UV light.
With the arrival of summer this year, sunscreens came under fire again (see my previous post here). And rightly so. There is evidence to suggest that people are getting a false sense of security from those little SPF numbers, staying out in the sun longer because they aren’t burning, and still getting skin cancers. It would stand to reason that if you’re blocking UVBs but not UVAs, that this little seeming-contradiction could actually be true. What’s more, several studies are discovering that melanoma is found more often in sunscreen users compared to non-users, although a causal link has yet to be made. It’s even possible that sunscreens themselves contain nasty ingredients that contribute to melanoma (PABA is one known culprit). I highly recommend The Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen guide to help you find an effective and safe sunscreen. Also, at the risk of citing Wikipedia as a credible source, they do have a great page on the potential risks of sunscreens here. What?! They have lots of citations!
So when I know I’ll be out and about for several hours or in intense sun and heat, I wear a minimal sunscreen to prevent burning. Dr. Shanahan recommends this, since sunburns create inflammation in the body and inflammation blocks normal signals for a healthy body while sending other signals for our bodies to store fat. No bueno. But she also advocates building up a base tan for true, complete protection.
Game on! But I had another good reason for lying naked in a space-age tube. In May, I visited lovely Phoenix, AZ to visit my friend Juliann, and hell if I was going to spend the whole time indoors. It hovered around 100°F every day, and it felt lovely. I didn’t have to worry when we visited the botanical gardens, when we flew through the air on the trapeze (here), or when we were chilling on a patio with an ice cold cerveza.
Several years ago, I accidentally performed my own n=1 experiment. One year, my husband and I went on a sailing vacation to the British Virgin Islands. I pre-tanned in tanning beds, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The next year, we went on a sailing vacation to Belize. I was busy with grad school and didn’t pre-tan. I burned mercilessly every day, over and over, despite constant sunscreen application (probably due to so much in and out of the water). And when I got home, none of that burning translated to tan.
But let me tell you, tanning beds aren’t as annoying as they used to be. I remember way back when I would go before high school prom (almost 20 years ago!). You’d lay there for 20 minutes and you’d have to go every other day to maintain it. These days, the beds have a lot less UVA light and more UVB for bringing up that melanin. Before my trip in May, I went 3-4 times a week for two weeks to build up my base tan, and ever since, I only go in once a week for 7 minutes to maintain. As a busy mom with things I’d rather be doing, this works for me. Plus, it’s surprisingly relaxing to lay there with absolutely nothing else to do, even if only for 7 minutes.
I’m not aiming for George Hamilton color here, folks. I just want the fluorescent knocked off a bit. Some people are surprised when I mention I’ve been tanning. And it doesn’t hurt that I feel a bit more confident in skirts, shorts, and swimsuits.
Besides, I’m adding sunscreen companies to the list of shysters (including the industrialized food complex, shoe companies, and the dental industry) who think they know better than our own bodies and the world in which we evolved. THE SUN IS THE PRIMARY SOURCE OF ALL LIFE ON EARTH. How could it be so evil? We evolved with its presence in our lives, and while we shouldn’t go overboard, we shouldn’t be avoiding it either.
And I haven’t even touched on the benefits of all that naturally-produced Vitamin D. Vanity and health? Love it.