Why is Sun Tanning Popular?

Is it a remnant of an ancient religious reverence for the sun? Is it simply a cultural bias of attractiveness?  Or is the popularity of suntans deeply rooted in human nature?

History paints a view of changing trends, flipping the perceptions of pale and tan skin. Pale skin was once an indicator leisure and wealth, marking status over tanned workers who toiled out in the sun. Today, the current trend has flipped pale skin to a marker of poor health or less leisure time whereas a robust suntan suggests status and vigor and health.  Designer Coco Chanel is noted for introducing the suntan trend after returning from a trip bearing a bronze glow, in the 1920s. Since then, the decades illustrate an increasing obsession with tanning to achieve that “healthy” glow.

However, it is important to recognize that a suntan is actually not necessarily a good indicator of health. After sitting in the sun for a few minutes, the sickliest, most pallid person would appear healthier because they received “a nice healthy glow.” 

While getting out into the sun does provide some health benefits, such as higher vitamin D levels, for the most part sun bathing and excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is not so good. It can cause health problems like:

  • rapid premature aging,
  • skin damage
  • skin cancer (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma)
  • damage to the eyes (cataract development)
  • suppression of the immune system

So, if you want to remain healthy, yet love the look that a suntan provides, what should you do? 

Healthier Tanning

A tanning bed? No, since they utilize UV light, they would provide similar health problems as sunbathing.  What about sunless tanning sprays?  While they may be safer for your skin than UV light, they may also contain chemicals that have not been fully tested for health risks. A sunless tanning lotion may be a better bet. However, beware of products masquerading as self-tanners (pills, “enhancers”) but actually containing harmful chemicals that interact with the sun, and damaging your skin.

The answer to a truly healthy tan may come from an unlikely source: your diet. Surprisingly, a healthy diet of vegetables rich in carotenoids can, it turns out, help you get that golden glow.

Vitamin A and Carotenoids

Carrots on a cutting board.Carotenoids are a class of naturally occurring molecules that provide the yellow, orange, and red coloring of many fruits and vegetables, including carrots and tomatoes. Carotenoids are found in many dark green vegetables as well. They are a natural source of vitamin A and other naturally occurring antioxidant compounds. 

Vitamin A and other carotenoids are essential:

  • For proper growth and development of the body. 
  • For maintenance and strengthening of the immune system. 
  • For antioxidant protection of our cells that become damaged by UV radiation and reactive oxygen species. 

Without the antioxidant protection provided by essential nutrients such as carotenoids, cellular damage could potentially run rampant, causing aged-looking skin and, worse, unwanted cellular mutation. This type of damage is often the first step in the development of numerous diseases, including cancer.

Due to the health benefits of carotenoids, and their ability to protect us from the damaging effects of UV radiation, could carotenoids protect our skin during sunbathing?

Approximately 20 years ago, two high school female biology students put this hypothesis to the test and had a crash course in the consequences of curiosity and self-experimentation. Neither student approached this experiment like a scientist, but rather like teenagers, focusing on the one idea: carotenoids will work great for suntans.  Spring break was coming and they decided that an entire week lying beneath the warm California sun while eating several pounds of carrots was a great idea. 

Carotenoids and Suntanning

Carotenoids—their health benefits aside—are, ultimately, dyes.  Binge eat enough carrots in a short amount of time and you will turn orange; compound this with a week of sun tanning and you will look almost radioactive.  Needless to say, the girls were mortified; their skin had turned a bright orange. They ended up refusing for the rest of the school year, even when the warm California days slowly began approaching three digit temperatures, to wear anything but long pants and turtle necks. To be fair, however, the students were not entirely wrong in their experiment—just a tad misguided.

A new study led by Dr. Ian Stephen, “Carotenoid and melanin pigment coloration affect perceived human health,” published in the 2011 issue of the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior found that eating vegetables with high carotenoid levels is actually beneficial for a healthy tan.  The only differences are that binge eating carrots and the sun are simply not required.   

Dr. Ian Stephen found that people who ate a well-balanced healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids had a truly healthy yellow-orange glow; a glow that was generally perceived by objective participants as healthier and ultimately more attractive than people that were either pale or darker due to sun tanning.

So, ultimately the quest for achieving a healthy glow no longer requires long hours basking beneath the skin-cancer inducing rays of the sun, or lying under the damaging UV-lights of a tanning bed, or even using artificial tanning spray.  You can eat your way to that golden glow by incorporating your daily fruits and vegetables.