What You Should Know About Your Glow

It’s the ultimate goal of summer vacationers: the perfect golden-brown suntan. From L.A. to the Jersey Shore; from Green Beach to Scripps Pool, sun-seekers soak up the rays, hoping for the darkest shade possible. It may seem like a simple equation: Sun+skin= tan. Add in your preferred SPF of sunscreen and subtract sunburn to balance the summer equation further. It would be nice if it were that simple but, of course, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Think about it for a moment: do you even know what a suntan is? Or why sunscreen helps protect against burns? Or what SPF means? For all the time we spend in the sun working on our glow, the vast majority of us (myself included, until I began to research this article) are naive about the hard facts of sun exposure. It may seem odd for us to be so nonchalant about an activity that is known to increase our risk of cancer: most of us would not approach a nuclear power plant without understanding the chemistry fully and wearing protective gear.

But getting savvy about sunshine won’t ruin your fun in the sun this summer-- you can still get your coveted summer tan, and be safer and wiser while doing so.

Sunscreen, Defined

Sunscreen, when it was first conceived to protect World War II soldiers from UV exposure in the South Pacific,  was a thick, red, jelly-like substance that was smeared onto the face and body. This vintage sunscreen consisted of inorganic materials that reflected UV rays away from the skin. Thankfully, sun protection has come a long way: we no longer cover ourselves in rhubarb jam to stay safe in the sun. Today’s sunscreens have both inorganic materials (like zinc oxide) to reflect light, and organic materials (like octyl methoxycinnamate), which react chemically with UV rays and dissipate them as heat.

These materials combine to create a specific SPF, or (Sun Protection Factor). SPF is simply a multiplication factor of your body’s natural protection against UV rays. If you can typically stay out in the sun for fifteen minutes without burning, an SPF of 10 should allow you to stay out for 150 minutes. This should not, however,  be taken at face value: the SPF on sunscreen bottles is based on the assumption that the wearer put on 1.5 ounces of sunscreen (that’s a full shot-glass worth of sunscreen) at least 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Because most people only apply about one-third that amount of cream, and lather up only when they are already outdoors, the actual protection factor of the sunscreen may be only half to a third of what the bottle claims.

Another fact: sunscreen only protects against UVB rays, the ones responsible for sunburns. UVB rays are partially absorbed by the atmosphere, but can still damage a skin cell’s DNA significantly. Some sunscreens will also guard against UVA rays, which have a shorter wavelength and penetrate deeper into the skin. UVA rays are not usually responsible for sunburns, but exposure can generate free radicals within the body and create longer, more lasting damage. There is a third wavelength, called UVC, which is entirely absorbed by the atmosphere-- humans only  encounter UVCs in artificial radiation environments (READ: don’t go sunless tanning!). Look for a sunblock with “broad spectrum” protection to get both UVA and UVB protection.

Can You Feel the Burn?


If you’ve ever gotten a rash or a bee sting, you know a harmed area quickly becomes red and swollen. This is the body sending blood into the capillaries of the injured region to accelerate the healing process. The same process occurs when the skin becomes sunburned. DNA near the base of the skin cells and on the epidermis become damaged, and blood rushes to the surface to help heal...hence, the lobster-red sunburn.

Nobody wants a sunburn (so not cute), and many sunbathers take care to avoid frying.  What many don't know is that tanning is simply a different response to the same damaging situation. When UV rays hit the skin’s cells, the DNA begins to break down and the body produces melanin to repair the molecules. This melanin is what causes the skin to appear darker: the darker the tan, the more serious the damage. Dr. Edward Ross puts it simply: “Tan skin is damaged skin.” Even after the cells heal, the damage persists beneath the surface and can cause premature aging in the form of skin dryness, thinness, and wrinkles.  How hot does that sound?

Other professionals differ in the extent of their condemnation of tanning. Becoming a vampire that never sees the light is just as dangerous as spending extensive time in the sun. Sunlight gives our bodies essential nutrients like vitamin D, without which we are susceptible to ailments such as Rickets, immune deficiency, and bone-density loss.  Still, it's irrefutable that excessive, unprotected sun exposure is incredibly harmful.

The Painful Truth

Beyond the immediate threat of an achy, tomato-red sunburn, perhaps the most infamous consequence of UV exposure is skin cancer. Over a million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the US every year. The disease occurs when the body cannot repair the damage that UV rays afflict on its cells’ DNA, and the cells begin to replicate and divide out of control. The disease is most often visible on the epidermis as a discolored patch, lump, or rash that requires a painful surgery to remove in order to halt its spread.

And the numbers of cases are multiplying too. One in 40 people in the US will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, which is a dramatic jump from 1 in 5000 that were afflicted with the disease 100 years ago. The theories as to this leap in statistics are varied: some scientists claim that the sun is “worse” for us today because of our thinning ozone layer, while others simply claim that the emergence of dark skin as a standard of beauty has caused people to make rash decisions regarding UV exposure. Although skin cancer is highly treatable, it's not to be taken lightly: around 8,000 melanoma-related deaths occur in the U.S. each year.   Non-melanoma is much less lethal, but treatment is still painful, expensive, and harsh on the patient's body and spirit.

Bottom line: wear sunscreen! It’s easy to apply, doubles as a moisturizer, and even smells like coconut and palm trees. Look for a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of at least 25… and then slather it on. Just make this simple lifestyle adjustment, and you can get your daily dose of Vitamin D and tan glow while feeling as carefree as summertime is meant to be.