Crispy golden brown: Exploring the health effects of tanning in sunlight and artificial light

By in Sports & Health

Many of us are returning to campus a shade or two darker than when we left it. If you spent any time this year under the sun, then you know how difficult it is to escape its unrelenting blitzkrieg of radiation.

In an age conscious of skin health, many still oil up and lay themselves out to cook in the gooey, golden warmth to achieve that summer glow. And, lingering still, are the arguably archaic tanning beds that offer up their light to kiss our skin. But are there any major health differences between natural and artificial tanning methods?

Our organic sun emits light of many different wavelengths — from ultraviolet to visible to infrared — and this radiation bombards our skin, giving it that sunkissed glow and bathing us in that sleepy warmth. The frequency we are most interested in when tanning is that pesky ultraviolet radiation, specifically the UVA and UVB varieties.

UVA and UVB rays penetrate our skin and can reach down to muck about in the cells it is composed of. One cell of importance is the melanocyte — the melanin production factory that churns out the pigment that determines our skin colour. This molecule desperately tries to protect our skin from damage. Melanin production ramps up when exposed to UV light — like a tiny army with their shields raised to defend your cellular kingdom.

The pigment tries to absorb most of the UV radiation — a little bit like an internal sunscreen. This is also what gives you your tan. The more melanin produced, the deeper your skin colour gets.

While some exposure to UV light is necessary for our health — it is needed for the production of vitamin D after all — this wavelength also ravages our DNA and increases mutations within our cells. UVA radiation can fuse base pairs in our genes together, leading to substantial structural changes to our DNA. It also indirectly affects our building blocks through the creation of reactive oxygen species, or free radicals, which raid and pillage molecules for electrons — leading to an increase in mutations.

Fortunately, our bodies do have mechanisms that can repair this damage, scanning along to swap out the broken bits and fill the holes left behind. But sometimes, things are missed or beyond repair, and this is where things become dangerous for us. These mutations can spin out of control, leading to increased cell proliferation, and often times, serious consequences like skin cancer.

So, are tanning beds any safer for our skin? Do the fluorescent bulbs offer less radiation than that sizzling, gaseous orb in the sky? Unfortunately, no.

Tanning beds still emit damaging ultraviolet light — specifically UVA — which penetrates deep into your skin and starts vibrating, or exciting, your melanocytes. UVA is the most prevalent wavelength in tanning bed lights, and the artificial bulbs emit UVA rays that are almost three times more intense than those of sunlight.

It also appears that the fake-bake trend of tanning beds has gone out of style in the last decade. Although they once littered strip malls far and wide, there appear to be only a few shops left in town to visit for your human-toaster-oven fix.

Tanning, whether organic or artificial, is not an ideal activity for your health. Aggressive types of skin cancer, such as melanoma, can easily be left unchecked to grow rapidly. Like nearly all cancers, melanoma is capable of metastasizing — travelling — to another organ.

If you are going to spend that extra time in the sun regardless of the consequences, at least know that the gorgeous tan you’re getting is the result of a war waged between your cellular defenders and invisible light waves from that big ol’ fireball in the sky. So, throw some sunscreen on your skin suit, and help your melanocytes out.

Erin Matthews / Opinions Editor

Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor