Today, many of us still associate a tan with an active and healthy lifestyle; indeed, a swim at the beach, a bike ride, or a game of tennis can leave you with a sun-kissed face. Although heart-smart outdoor activity has undeniable benefits, constant tanning can actually be harmful.

A bit about ultraviolet radiation. When the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate the skin, they can adversely affect skin cell DNA–the vital blueprint that contains instructions on how a cell should behave during its life cycle. When DNA is damaged, a cell can ‘malfunction,’ which can potentially lead to skin cancer. A tan is your body’s attempt to protect your skin from unfriendly UV radiation.

Why our skin tans. When UV light hits the skin, it prompts melanocytes–the skin’s pigment-generating cells–to produce more melanin to darken the skin. This natural process is called melanogenesis. When the skin becomes darker, it provides a temporary shield and decreases UV penetration. Eventually, as new skin cells are pushed to the surface, the tan will fade and the complexion will return to its normal color.

So is a tan healthy? Although a tan is the skin’s protection mechanism, it also has consequences. A common misconception is that only sunburns cause damage. In fact, tanning can lead to:

  • Uneven skin tone, dehydration and rough texture
  • Premature aging
  • Spider veins and dilated blood vessels (telangiectasia)
  • Exacerbation of skin conditions such as rosacea
  • Increased risk of skin cancer

Even if you do not scorch your skin or tan excessively, your skin can still show signs of UV-related damage–immediately and down the line.

Celebrating a diversity of skin tones. Human beings have a beautiful range of skin colors due to our genetic variability, which influences the amount of melanin pigment our bodies produce. In the human population, some individuals will have naturally darker complexions and some will tan more easily than others due to their skin’s ability to produce higher amounts pigment. Conversely, those with fairer skin tones will be more susceptible to burning due to a lower production of the pigment in their skin. Those will lighter complexions also tend to have a higher risk and incidence of skin cancer.

Keeping the skin healthy. Although tanning and burning are the most obvious signs of a long day in the sun, it is important to remember that sun damage also occurs due to the cumulative effects of everyday exposure. So it essential to protect the skin daily with sunscreen or a moisturizer that contains SPF.

When it comes to your skin’s health, it is best to your feel comfortable in your own skin. Avoid sunbathing and artificial tanning beds. And if really want a sunny glow, opt for a safer alternative, such as a bronzing cosmetic finish or a spray tan. That way, you can sport a healthy tan–without compromising your skin.

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