A century ago, summer clothes covered just about every part of the body, and pale white skin was considered fashionable; it meant that a person could (quite literally) afford to stay out of the sun and didn’t have to work outside for a living. How the times have changed.
One theory explaining the current American affinity for a rich, dark tan originated with famed designer Coco Chanel in 1923. As the story goes, one day she was taking a trip and stayed outdoors too long. The result was a sunburn, and later a prominent tan, which fashion circles eagerly picked up on. Years later, aided by faster modes of commercial travel, the suntan became evidence of someone who may live in northern latitudes but had the means to vacation in a sunny place.
Fashion trends aside, there are benefits to modest amounts of natural sunlight. For one thing, exposure to sunlight can help elevate mood and ward off seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Another key benefit to modest sun exposure is that this enables the body to produce vitamin D. According to the NIH, few foods naturally contain this nutrient, so exposure to sunlight can be a source of vitamin D, even for people in far northern latitudes, for the majority of the year.
On the flip side, most of us have heard the negative impacts that too much sun exposure has on the skin. Skin cancer is most often caused by the ultraviolet (UV) light that’s given off by the sun, and the American Cancer Society points out that while very light skinned individuals are at a higher risk of sun damage, no one of any skin type is immune. The ACA also provides a long list of factors that could increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing damage from the sun, and suggests seeing a medical professional if any of these applies.
However, the problem doesn’t appear to be catching a few rays here and there, but rather that many of us are simply overdoing it. Well-Being Wire has reported that more than half of American adults under age 30 have had a sunburn in the previous year, and that only about a third of that same group apply sunscreen to protect against sunburn. Acceptable levels of sun exposure vary by person, but WebMD suggests that everyone should avoid direct sun exposure during the middle hours of the day, and apply sunscreen with SPF 15 or more a half hour before going out into the sun. Oh, and it’s important to reapply every few hours if you continue to be out in the sun.
Speaking of, the typical sunscreen we can pick up on the pharmacy store shelf is regulated by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug, and the agency recently approved new federal guidelines for commercially sold sunscreen. Starting December 17, labels on sunscreen will be required to look a little bit different, though consumers will start noticing the changes before then. The American Academy of Dermatology breaks down some of the changes and their impact to the country’s many sun worshippers. For one, the term “broad spectrum” didn’t used to mean very much, but now that distinction will be reserved only for those products that pass a particular kind of test, so “broad spectrum protection” will be a real differentiator for consumers. Also, manufacturers will no longer be able to use claims such as “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” or “sunblock,” which are considered to be overpromises. Similarly, water-resistance claims will be more strictly controlled. Other limitations on claims about preventing cancer and aging, along with a standard Drug Facts label, are all headed to a lotion bottle near you.
So which type of sunscreen to choose for the best results? Both the Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports [paid] have compiled ratings for common sunscreen brands, as well as tips to help make the right decisions for your sun exposure and budget. The FDA has also produced this video to provide a little extra guidance for making smart sunscreen selections, while also being careful to note that no sunscreen provides 100% protection from UV rays.
Finally, sun exposure isn’t the only concern for those looking to turn beige in to brown. Nowadays, Americans are turning to indoor alternatives in search of that year-round bronze, but these carry health risks of their own. Data reported earlier this year showed that even using tanning beds infrequently—only four times per year—can significantly increase the risk for skin cancer. Think spray tans are a safe alternative? Not so fast, according to a recent report from ABC News suggesting that spray tanners may be getting more than just that trademark tangerine tone. Many spray tan formulas contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) which is thought to act on genes, the effects of which may not be known. While marketed as safe, the FDA warns that DHA should never be ingested or inhaled, so best practices for care and use should always be followed.
In the years ahead, a rich tan may fall in and out of favor, but maintaining optimal skin health is always in fashion. And bonus—healthy skin doesn’t fade away in two or three weeks.