Having a tan is trendy.
People go out of their way to get a bronzed bod, sunbathing on the beach for hours in pursuit of the perfect tan.
But not everyone who goes out in the sun unprotected (and please don’t ever) comes back with a tan.
Some of us just burn, or at best freckle as our pasty skin tries – and fails – to tan even slightly.
So why do some people turn brown instantly on the first day of summer, while others are forced to slop on sunscreen to prevent agonising sunburns?
It all comes down to Melanin.
Melanin is the pigment which determines your skin colour. It’s also responsible for the colour of your hair and irises. All of us are born with roughly the same number of melanin-producing cells (melanocytes), but depending on our genetics these cells may produce more or less melanin.
Additionally there are two types of melanin: eumelanin (which creates brown or black pigmentation) and pheomelanin (which creates yellow-red pigmentation). The more melanin produced in a person (and particularly the more eumelanin produced), the darker your natural skin colour is.
When you’re exposed to sunlight, part of that sunlight is made up of ultraviolet (UV) rays. These guys suck – in Australia these rays are the main cause of skin cancer. As well as colouring our skin, melanin also serves as a defence to these UV rays. When we’re smashed with sunlight, some people’s melanocytes will start producing more melanin as protection (causing your skin to darken, and therefore tan).
But if your skin naturally doesn’t produce a lot of melanin, however (because for instance you are fair skinned), your skin quickly becomes overwhelmed by the UV rays and, well, burns. So if you find yourself perpetually pale, you can blame your melanocytes, and your genetics.
That’s not to forget that ANY unprotected exposure to UV rays can cause DNA damage and lead to skin cancer, tanned or not.
While being tanned or dark-skinned technically offers some protection from the sun, studies have shown tans at best only provide a UV protection of SPF 3 (dermatologists recommend using sunscreen of at least SPF30). That means you might go a few extra minutes without burning, but that’s about it. And a tan provides no protection from DNA damage.
So if you’re outside this summer (even when it’s cloudy) make sure to slip, slop, slap. Unless it’s fake, there’s nothing healthy about a tan.