Sun tanning

"Sunbather" redirects here. For the 2013 album by Deafheaven, see Sunbather (album).
A woman sun tanning on a Portuguese beach

Sun tanning or simply tanning is the process whereby skin color is darkened or tanned. It is most often a result of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or from artificial sources, such as a tanning lamp. People who deliberately tan their skin by exposure to the sun engage in a passive recreational activity of sun bathing. Some people use chemical products which can produce a tanning effect without exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Moderate exposure to the sun contributes to the production of melanin and vitamin D by the body, but excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays has negative health effects, including sunburn and increased risk of skin cancer,[1] as well as depressed immune system function and accelerated aging of the skin. Some people tan or sunburn more easily than others. This may be the result of different skin types and natural skin color, and these may be a result of genetics.

Several cases of tanning addiction have been reported. Though the mechanism by which tanning addiction occurs is unknown, some evidence indicates that the release of endorphins during the tanning process causes the pleasurable effects that underlie the addiction.[2]

The term "tanning" has a cultural origin, arising from the color tan. Its origin lies in the Western culture of Europe when it became fashionable for young women to seek a less pale complexion (see Cultural history below).

Tanning process

A suntanned arm showing browner skin where it has been exposed

Melanin is a natural pigment produced by cells called melanocytes in a process called melanogenesis. Melanocytes produce two types of melanin: pheomelanin (red) and eumelanin (very dark brown). Melanin protects the body by absorbing ultraviolet radiation. Excessive UV radiation causes sunburn along with other direct and indirect DNA damage to the skin, and the body naturally combats and seeks to repair the damage and protect the skin by creating and releasing further melanin into the skin's cells. With the production of the melanin, the skin color darkens. The tanning process can be triggered by natural sunlight or by artificial UV radiation, which can be delivered in frequencies of UVA, UVB, or a combination of both. The intensity is commonly measured by the UV Index.

There are two different mechanisms involved in production of a tan by UV exposure: Firstly, UVA radiation creates oxidative stress, which in turn oxidises existing melanin and leads to rapid darkening of the melanin. UVA may also cause melanin to be redistributed (released from melanocytes where it is already stored), but its total quantity is unchanged. Skin darkening from UVA exposure does not lead to significantly increased production of melanin or protection against sunburn.[3]

In the second process, triggered primarily by UVB, there is an increase in production of melanin (melanogenesis),[4] which is the body's reaction to direct DNA photodamage (formation of pyrimidine dimers) from UV radiation.[5] Melanogenesis leads to delayed tanning, and typically becomes visible two or three days after exposure.[4] The tan that is created by increased melanogenesis typically lasts for a few weeks or months, much longer than the tan that is caused by oxidation of existing melanin, and is also actually protective against UV skin damage and sunburn, rather than simply cosmetic. Typically, it can provide a modest Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 3, meaning that tanned skin would tolerate up to 3 times the UV exposure as pale skin.[6] However, in order to cause true melanogenesis-tanning by means of UV exposure, some direct DNA photodamage must first be produced, and this requires UVB exposure (as present in natural sunlight, or sunlamps that produce UVB).

The ultraviolet frequencies responsible for tanning are often divided into the UVA and UVB ranges.

An artificial source tanning bed


Ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation is in the wavelength range 320 to 400 nm. It is present more uniformly throughout the day, and throughout the year, than UVB. Most UVA is not blocked by the atmosphere's ozone layer. UVA causes the release of existing melanin from the melanocytes to combine with oxygen (oxidize) to create the actual tan color in the skin. It is blocked less than UVB by many sunscreens, but is blocked to some degree by clothing. UVA is known both to cause DNA damage and to be carcinogenic. However, it operates not by inducing direct DNA damage, but by producing reactive oxygen species which damage DNA indirectly. UVA (see above) induces a cosmetic tan but little extra melanin protection against sun damage, sun burn, or cancer.


Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation is in the wavelength range 280 to 320 nm. Much of this band is blocked by the Earth's ozone layer, but some penetrates. UVB does the following:

Tanning behavior of different skin colors

The Black Sea series (2012) by Nikita Shokhov

A person's natural skin color affects their reaction to exposure to the sun. An individual's natural skin color can vary from a dark brown to a nearly colorless pigmentation, which may appear reddish due to the blood in the skin. In 1975, Harvard dermatologist Thomas B. Fitzpatrick devised the Fitzpatrick scale which described the common tanning behavior of various skin types, as follows:[9][10]

Type Also called Sunburning Tanning behavior von Luschan scale
I Very light or pale Often Occasionally 1–5
II Light or light-skinned Usually Sometimes 6–10
III Light intermediate Rarely Usually 11–15
IV Dark intermediate Rarely Often 16–21
V Dark or "brown" type No Sometimes darkens 22–28
VI Very dark or "black" type No Naturally black-brown skin 29–36

Health aspects

The most-common risk of exposure to ultraviolet radiation is sunburn, the speed and severity of which vary among individuals. This can be alleviated at least to some extent by the prior application of a suitable-strength sunscreen, which will also hinder the tanning process due to the blocking of UV light.

Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation is known to cause skin cancer,[11] make skin age and wrinkle faster,[12] mutate DNA,[13] and impair the immune system.[14] Frequent tanning bed use triples the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.[15] The International Agency for Research on Cancer places the use of tanning beds in the highest cancer risk category, describing them as carcinogenic to humans, if used as the manufacturer recommends. Tanning bed use under the age of 35 increases melanoma risk by 87%. In Australia, 1 in 6 melanomas in people aged 18 to 29 are caused by tanning beds, and they have been attributed to an estimated 281 new melanomas a year, 43 melanoma-related deaths, and 2,572 new cases of squamous cell carcinoma.[16]

Several tanning activators have used different forms of psoralen, which are known to be photocarcinogenic.[17][18][19] Health authorities have banned psoralen since July 1996.[20]


Various home-made remedies are suggested to remove sun tans, including lemon juice, yogurt, tomato juice, aloe vera, raw potato, cucumber juice, etc.[21][22][23]

Cultural history

La promenade (1875) by Claude Monet. At that time in the West, the upper social class used parasols, long sleeves and hats to avoid sun tanning effects.

Tanning has gone in and out of fashion. In the United States and Western Europe before about the 1920s, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes, because they worked outdoors and were exposed to the sun. Women went to great lengths to preserve pallid skin, as a sign of their "refinement".[24]

Women's outdoor clothing styles were tailored to protect against sun exposure, with full-length sleeves, and sunbonnets and other large hats, headscarves, and parasols shielding the head. Women even went as far as to put lead-based cosmetics on their skin to artificially whiten their skin tone.[25] However, when not strictly monitored, these cosmetics caused lead poisoning. Light-skinned appearance was achieved in other ways, including the use of arsenic to whiten skin, and lightening powders. The preference for fair skin continued until the end of the Victorian era.

By the early 20th century, the therapeutic benefits of sunlight began to be recognised.[26] In 1903, Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his “Finsen Light Therapy”.[27] The therapy was a cure for diseases such as lupus vulgaris and rickets. Vitamin D deficiency was found to be a cause of rickets, and exposure to the sun would allow vitamin D to be produced in a person. Therefore, sun exposure was a remedy to curing several diseases, especially rickets. In 1910 a scientific expedition went to the island of Tenerife to test the wider health benefits of "heliotherapy",[28] and by 1913 "sunbathing" was referred to as a desirable activity for the leisured class.[29]

Shortly thereafter, in the 1920s, fashion-designer Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburnt while visiting the French Riviera. When she arrived home, she arrived with a suntan and her fans apparently liked the look and started to adopt darker skin tones themselves. Tanned skin became a trend partly because of Coco’s status and the longing for her lifestyle by other members of society. In addition, Parisians fell in love with Josephine Baker, a “caramel-skinned” singer in Paris, and idolised her dark skin. These two women were leading figures of the transformation that tanned skin underwent, in which it became perceived as fashionable, healthy, and luxurious.[30][31][32] Jean Patou capitalised on the new tanning fad, launching the first suntan oil "Huile de Chaldee" in 1927.[33]

Just before the 1930s, sun therapy became a popularly subscribed cure for almost every ailment from simple fatigue to tuberculosis. In the 1940s, advertisements started appearing in women’s magazines which encouraged sun bathing. At the same time, swimsuits' skin coverage began decreasing, with the bikini radically changing swimsuit style after it made its appearance in 1946. In the 1950s, many people used baby oil as a method to increase tanning. The first self-tanner came about in the same decade and was known as “Man-Tan,” although it often led to undesirable orange skin.[11] Coppertone, in 1953, marketed its sunscreen with a drawing of a little blond girl and her cocker spaniel tugging on her bathing suit bottoms revealing her bare bottom and tan line; this advertisement was modified around the turn of the 21st century and now shows a little girl wearing a one-piece bathing suit or shorts.[34] In the latter part of the 1950s, silver metallic reflectors were common to enhance one’s tan.

In 1962, sunscreen commenced to be SPF rated, although SPF labeling in the US was not standardised by the FDA until 1978. In 1971, Mattel introduced Malibu Barbie, which had tanned skin, sunglasses, and her very own bottle of sun tanning lotion. In 1978, both sunscreen with an SPF 15 rating as well as tanning beds first appeared. In 2007, there were an estimated 50,000 outlets for indoor tanning; it was a five-billion-dollar industry in the United States,[35] and had spawned an auxiliary industry for indoor tanning lotions including bronzers, intensifiers, and accelerators. Since then, the indoor tanning industry has become more constrained by health regulations.[36] In China, darker skin is still considered by many to be the mark of the lower classes. As recently as 2012, in some parts of China, ski masks were becoming popular items to wear at the beach in order to protect the wearer's face from the effects of the sun.[37]

Many people regard visible tan lines as un-aesthetic, and seek to avoid tan lines that will be visible when regular clothes are worn. Some people try to achieve an all-over tan or to maximize their tan coverage. To achieve an all-over tan, tanners need to dispense with clothing; and to maximize coverage, they need to minimize the amount of clothing they wear while tanning. For women who cannot dispense with a swimsuit, they at times tan with the back strap undone while lying on the front, or removing shoulder straps, besides wearing swimsuits which cover less area than their normal clothing. Any exposure is subject to local community standards and personal choice. Some people tan in the privacy of their backyard where they can at times tan without clothes, and some countries have set aside clothing-optional swimming areas (popularly known as nude beaches), where people can tan and swim clothes-free. Some people tan topless, and others wear very brief swimwear, such as a microkini or thong.

A 1969 innovation is tan-through swimwear, which uses fabric perforated with thousands of micro holes that are nearly invisible to the naked eye, but which transmit enough sunlight to approach an all-over tan, especially if the fabric is stretched taut. Tan-through swimwear typically allows more than one-third of UV rays to pass through (equivalent to SPF 3 or less), and an application of sunscreen even to the covered area is recommended.[38][39][40]

Sunless tanning

Main article: Sunless tanning

To avoid exposure to UVB and UVA rays, or in seasons without strong sunshine, some people take alternative steps to appear with darkened skin. They may use sunless tanning (also known as self-tanners); stainers which are based on dihydroxyacetone (DHA);[41] or cosmetics such as bronzers. Others may create a tanned appearance by wearing tan-colored stockings or pantyhose.

Many sunless tanning products are available in the form of darkening creams, gels, lotions, and sprays that are self-applied on the skin. There is also a professional spray-on tanning option or “tanning booth” that is offered by spas, salons, and tanning businesses.[42]

Spray tanning does not involve a color being sprayed on the body, instead it uses a colorless chemical which reacts with proteins in the top layer of the skin, resulting in a brown color. The two main active ingredients used in most sunless tanners are DHA and erythrulose. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of DHA spray tanning booths because it has not received safety data to support this specific use. DHA is a permitted additive for cosmetic use restricted to external application. When used in a commercial spray tanning booth, areas such as the eyes, lips or mucous membrane can be exposed to the DHA, which is a non-permitted use of the product.[43]

Other agents include afamelanotide and melanotan II, which induce the production of dark dermal pigmentation (melanogenesis) without sun exposure.

See also


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  5. 1 2 Nita Agar; Antony R. Young (2005). "Review: Melanogenesis: a photoprotective response to DNA damage?". Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis. 571 (1–2): 121–132. doi:10.1016/j.mrfmmm.2004.11.016. PMID 15748643.
  6. "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer" (PDF). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2014. p. 20. A UVB-induced tan provides minimal sun protection, equivalent to an SPF of about 3.
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