Advice for sun-seekers regarding safe tanning

As a big believer in the health-boosting potential of sunshine, I do what I can to get my fair share of this free commodity. One a recent trip to the Algarve in Portugal, I made being out in the sun a priority. I have olive skin, which means, as long as I don’t go mad, I can sun myself without much fear of getting burned. However, I saw enough pink-tinged tourists while out in the Algarve to remind me that fairer skinned individuals need to be a bit more careful in the sun.

My preference in this regard is not to rely too much on sunscreen. Why? Because at least some evidence links their with an increased risk of malignant melanoma. So, I generally recommend seeking shade and wearing appropriate clothing for those who do not want to burn themselves to a crisp.

However, I think it’s worth bearing in mind that in addition to external protection, the body may benefit from some protection from within too. One process through which sunshine can burn the skin involves damaging destructive molecules called ‘free radicals’. Quenching these, by upping levels of ‘antioxidants’, might therefore protect the skin from sunburn. One of the key antioxidant nutrients for sunburn prevention is beta-carotene. In the piece I have pasted in below, I recommend dosages for this nutrient along with other antioxidants (vitamins C and E) that are likely to afford skin protection when we’re out in the sun.

Another way to protect the skin from sunlight is to get a tan ” darker skin is more resistant to burning. Tanning is actually the result of increased production of a skin pigment called ‘melanin’ (not to be confused with melatonin ” the brain chemical secreted to put us to sleep at night). Certain nutrients participate in the production of melanin, and may therefore help us tan more efficiently. Details about the most relevant nutrients, and recommended dosages, can also be found in the piece pasted in below.

Protecting ourselves from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays

For something as natural as the day is long, sunlight seems to get some pretty bad press. This time of year is usually accompanied by a rash of articles and news stories warning us of the perils of the sun’s rays, and experts are quick to draw out attention to the dangers of sunburn and it’s link with skin cancer. Yet, for all this advice to stay out of the sun, it appears we are reluctant to take heed: there seems to be no shortage of people keen to dose up with solar energy, and a recent poll found that three-quarters of us prefer the bronzed look over a more pallid appearance any day.

For those of us who are die-hard tan-seekers, it makes sense to do what we can to protect ourselves from the ravages of the sun. While slathering ourselves with sunscreen and seeking solace in the shade when the sun is at its hottest are sensible tactics here, they are but half the story. Odd though it may seem, science suggests that our ability to tan safely is, to a degree, dependent on what we put into our mouths every day. There is good evidence that upping our intake of specific nutrients can help us in our quest to acquire a healthy golden tan.

The undesirable effects of sunlight on the skin are believed to be triggered by the production of damaging, destructive biochemical entities known as free radicals. The fires that free radicals start in the body are quenched by substances known as antioxidants, many of which are available in the food we eat. Stoking up on antioxidants has the potential to reduce the risk of sunburn, and is believed to help combat longer-term problems such as ageing changes and skin cancer too.

One antioxidant that is believed to play a particular role in skin protection is beta-carotene. Carrots, spinach, apricots, cantaloupe melons and mangoes are all rich in beta-carotene and make good summer fare for this reason. However, additional supplementation with beta-carotene may prove a convenient and economical way of getting maximum protection from this nutrient. My advice would be to take 30 mg each day for the duration of the summer. Other antioxidant nutrients worth dosing up on include vitamins C and E. In one study, 2000 g of vitamin C and 1000 IU of vitamin E taken each day appeared to protect the skin from sunburn.

Other nutrients can help the skin by assisting in the production of melanin – the pigment that darkens the skin during tanning and acts as a natural sunscreen. Melanin is made from an amino acid known as L-tyrosine, and taking 1000 – 1500 mg of this each day as a supplement can therefore help the body tan quite naturally. The conversion of L-tyrosine into melanin is helped by certain nutrients, notably vitamin C, vitamin B6 and copper. In my experience, taking 2000 mg of vitamin C, 50 mg of vitamin B6 and 4 mg of copper each day does seem to speed tanning whilst at the same time reducing the risk of sunburn too.

10 Responses to Advice for sun-seekers regarding safe tanning

  1. A 19 March 2008 at 12:33 pm #

    I find it ironic that so much fuss goes into the warnings about avoiding as much sun exposure as possible, when it is becoming very clear that lack of sun exposure is the far greater danger, creating Vit D3 deficiencies, mood and sleep disorders, supressed immune systems, even serious forms of cancer. Sure, minor skin cancers and cosmetic skin aging could increase, but with reasonable precaution, that seems a reasonable tradeoff.

    The mainstream health authorities are doing cartwheels trying to reconcile the emerging news about the need for more Vit D with the conventional advice to avoid the best, most natural source of Vit D, the sun. Rather than provide sensible guildelines as you have summed up here, I suspect we will be seeing more “functional” foods with Vit D added (probably the synthetic D2 version), more warnings to avoid the sun, and increased reliance on supplementation. I don’t think a D3 supplement is a bad idea (I take some myself because I am prone to burning and have to balance the sun exposure with avoidance), but a little common-sense about sun exposure goes a long way.

    By the way, I have had a Basal Cell Carcinoma removed by MOHS from my nose and repaired with a skin graft, so I am no stranger to this double-edges word the sun presents us. But preventing treatable and non-fatal skin cancers and cosmetic skin damage with a protocol that increases far more serious conditions is back-asswards.

    I have also noted that in my 20s and early 30s, when I was following the recommendations and consuming little saturated fat and more polyunsaturated vegetable oils (and surely more artificial trans fats), I began to get those dark “liver spots” on the back of my hands from sun exposure. Now that I have cut out as much vegetable oil and artificial trans fat as possible and upped my consumption of stable naturally saturated fats, I have not developed any more “liver spots” and the existing ones have faded quite a bit. Hard to say if there is any connection, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Overall, my skin is just much much better, if older.

  2. bob 19 March 2008 at 2:06 pm #

    I do not get this – if I go out in the sun for longer than 10 mins I burn so u are saying do not use sun screan and fry myself. I do not think I ‘ll be doing that – I think this advcie is absurd!

  3. Dr John Briffa 19 March 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    What do these words mean to you: “I generally recommend seeking shade and wearing appropriate clothing for those who do not want to burn themselves to a crisp.”? Is it this advice that is ‘absurd’, or your failure to undertstand plain English?

  4. ann shaw 21 March 2008 at 11:17 am #

    Dear Dr Briffa,
    About 20 years ago I visited Ibiza. The temperature was in the 70s and coming from the UK it was hot. The hotel we stayed at supplied cooked- lunchtime dinners, english style – this is the point I am making. Eating a solid lunch at mid day I found I could stay in the sunshine without discomfort with a minimum of sunburn. I am a white skin pale person who would burn easily and never go brown! since this holiday I have noticed people who eat a mid day cooked meal seemed less sensitive to the discomfort of the heat. (All this was pre barrier cream days) Could this act as an antioxidant as described in your article?

  5. Matty Maccaro 21 March 2008 at 1:23 pm #

    Here in the states, people are living more and more of their lives indoors, under artificial light. Children are kept inside for fear of being harmed. Depression is extensive, osteoporosis rates are staggering and I am told that the Vitamin D deficiencies in Statin users are rampant. This is all the more reason to get out and benefit from natures own “OUTDOORPHINS” for improved mood and bones. I take 1200 mgs of Vitamin D3, especially in the winter when less sunshine and heavy clothing prevents absorption from the sun. Thanks, Dr. Briffa for consistently providing your health giving advice.

  6. Diana 21 March 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    I am interested in A’s comment that possibly links her diet to the appearance of liver spots. Although we are told that liver spots come about through too much sun exposure there has to be another factor at work, otherwise most fair-skinned people would have some liver spots by the time middle age is reached. The interplay between diet/digestion and an individual’s metabolism makes sense. Is there any scientific evidence on this — or is this too lowly a subject to have stimulated any research?

  7. Ariane 22 March 2008 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks John – interesting piece. Like you, I believe nutrition plays a crucial role in all aspects of health, so this argument is compelling.

    However, I’m not certain how to reconcile tanning (and gaining all its Vitamin D-producing benefits) with anti-ageing (and still looking 21 when I’m 27). While beta-carotene may provide protection from sunburn and therefore skin cancer, it’s my understanding that tanning itself causes skin ageing (not as much of a concern for most men, but a big issue for a lot of women).

    In your view, are Vitamin D supplements taken daily sufficient to provide the immune system protection associated with this vitamin, or is exposure to sunlight by far the best way of achieving this? I’m very interested to know what you think.

    Many thanks,


  8. Anna 22 March 2008 at 10:21 pm #

    Hmmm, which to choose? A few more wrinkles and perhaps a basal skin cancer or two and a robust immune system and overall health and well-being (including good mood and sleep patterns) vs. “young” looking skin (at higher risk for burn) and greater risk of serious health issues. I think I’ll risk the older looking skin for better health underneath. Beauty is only skin-deep, after all … health goes all the way through.

  9. Vitallywell 23 March 2008 at 12:07 am #

    Don’t forget that most sunscreens contain cancer causing chemicals.

  10. Sue 23 March 2008 at 11:29 am #

    I saw a TV programme some time ago where they tested and apparently demonstrated that eating tomatoes gives good levels proctection against sunburn in fair skinned people. The subject of the experiment ate about half a tube of tomato puree concentrate every day and when exposed to sunlight burned a lot less than she did beforehand. A good way of getting the benefits of sunlight while avoiding those nasty sunscreen chemicals?

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