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The science of tanning: Understand the true impact on your skin

The science of tanning: Understand the true impact on your skin

As a brand firmly committed to promoting healthy skin, we feel it's important to discuss the subject of tanning, especially in the build-up to summer.

Since the 60s, tanning has been a symbol of status, signifying wealth, summer holidays on tropical islands, an outdoor lifestyle, fitness and overall robust health.

The sense of 'looking more attractive with a tan' is still engrained in today's society, some 60 years on; like a troublesome weed, the roots are strong and deep.

Yet despite the cultural appeal, tanning can have severe physiological effects on your skin and overall skin health. In today's post, we'll explore the science behind tanning and explain how you can get the best of both worlds by tanning 'safely'.

Understanding the tanning process

When your skin becomes threatened by UV rays from the sun or a sunbed, it enters survival mode.

Cells called melanocytes are immediately triggered to produce extra melanin, sending them to the cells on the skin’s surface. Melanin is the naturally occurring pigment that gives your hair, skin and eyes their distinctive colour - the more naturally occurring melanin you have, the darker you are.

As a substance, melanin can absorb UV light and is also highly effective at scattering itself throughout the skin. So, when under UV attack, the extra melanin that’s produced quickly goes to work to try and defend deeper-lying, more ‘valuable’ parts of the skin from UV damage.

Cosmetically speaking, the excess melanin forms an ‘umbrella’ that makes the skin darker. This is what we know as a 'suntan'. So, the longer your skin is threatened by UV, the deeper your tan because more and more melanin is being produced by your body to protect itself. Ultimately, more pigment is building up the longer you stay exposed.

People who are fair have less melanin naturally and any excess melanin they do produce isn’t as effective. In the case of very fair people, the protective 'umbrella' is almost transparent so light can go straight through it, which is why they can burn relatively easily and quickly.

How effective is this natural sunscreen?

Skin is highly individualised so not everybody has the same capacity to protect themselves. But, critically, even for those who can form a solid base tan (or for those who are naturally dark-skinned), it cannot be relied upon to prevent sunburn or other skin damage.

A base tan offers the equivalent of SPF 3-5 when most dermatologists universally agree that we should all be wearing at least SPF 30 all year round.

Secondly (but related to this), it’s insufficient to rely on a tan to prevent skin damage. UV light causes DNA mutations that can lead to skin cancer, and the weakening of connective fibres, which leads to wrinkles, sagging, and sunspots.

Boosting your defences and protecting your skin from damage with clothing or SPF products is vital in the presence of UV. Your skin health is more important than a 48H tan. And for the vitamin D evangelists, your body can synthesise all the vitamin D you could possibly need in about 10 minutes, even while you wear sunscreen.

In conclusion, think of a tan like a fire alarm in a house fire: it’s a warning sign for you to run or quickly put out the fire. Ideally, the fire alarm doesn’t go off in the first place and there is no fire. That’s how we feel about tanning. A tan is a form of skin damage and it’s your body’s way of alerting you to further, potentially more serious, damage. So, avoid it altogether and protect your skin.

Bah humbug…

Yes, we recognise that some people like the look of being tanned and we completely understand that. We’d be the first to admit that a tan makes us feel better.

Fortunately, there are safer alternatives if you’re willing to see past social taboos.

  1. Sunless tanning products such as self-tanning lotions, sprays, and creams, provide a safe way to achieve a tan without exposing your skin to UV radiation. These products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with the amino acids on the skin's surface, temporarily darkening it.
  2. Professional spray tanning can provide a natural-looking tan without the need for sun exposure. Again, the tanning solution used contains DHA, which interacts with the amino acids in the skin to create a tan-like color.


Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Rates have doubled since the 90s and they’re forecast to double again over the next 20 years. It's plausible that part of this is down to 'catch-up' as generations of sun worshippers get older and pay the price of tanning in their earlier years.

Skin cancer is the most preventable form of cancer: 90% of melanomas (and 80% of ageing) can be attributed to excessive UV exposure. That’s why we believe your skin health is more important than cooking in the sun for a tan that lasts just a few days. Sadly, there's no such thing as a healthy sun tan. But a fake tan can give you all you need and may just save your life!