Mind & Body

What's Safer: Artificial Tanner or Sunbathing?

There's a classic "Seinfeld" episode where Kramer starts sunbathing in butter. It works out great for his tan — but it also cooks him to Thanksgiving-turkey perfection. Now, the truth is "smelling too delicious to my closest friends" isn't very high on the list of dangers associated with suntanning, and the episode didn't devote much screen time to the threat of skin cancer. It also didn't broach the subject of artificial tanner. We're pleased to inform you that artificial tanner won't cause cancer like sun exposure will — but confused to also announce that people who use it are about as likely to develop cancer as people who sunbathe. Wait, what?

Sun's Out, Guns Out, Sunscreen On

Just so that there's no confusion, we'll give away the ending right now: Excessive sunbathing causes skin cancer and artificial tanner doesn't. So if all you wanted was a risk-free tan, there you go. But be careful in pursuit of your tan. According to a new report in JAMA Dermatology, using sunless tanners alone won't prevent skin cancer or the risky, sun-chasing behaviors that lead to it.

Led by Dr. Melissa Dodds from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, the team solicited answers from a massive pool of 27,000 participants about their tanning habits, including their use of sunless tanner and other, more dangerous methods. A few clear patterns emerged. Only 6.4 percent of those surveyed reported using sunless tanner, and they tended to be young, white college graduates. They also tended to be from the western United States (where it's sunnier), and many of them had a family history of skin cancer (which puts them at higher risk).

You might be thinking that this all makes sense — somebody with so many risk factors would surely prefer a safer alternative to sunbathing. But, in fact, the researchers found that people who used sunless tanner were more likely to use tanning beds, report a recent sunburn, avoid protective clothing, or stay out in bright sunlight. It's not so much that sunless tanner causes skin cancer, but that it's a symptom of a larger desire for bronzed skin. If you want a tan badly enough, you'll go to every length to get it — artificial tanner, tanning beds, the sun itself, all of the above.

Ask the Expert: Skin Protection in the Sun

Tanned to Perfection

This is a good time to explain how, exactly, sunless tanner works. Remember that "Seinfeld" episode? It actually got one thing right. Tanning really does set off the same chemical reaction that happens when you cook a juicy piece of meat — but it's artificial tanner that does it, not sitting in the sun covered in butter. It's the Maillard reaction all over again.

No, sunless tanners aren't cooking your skin. (That's what we're trying to avoid, remember?) As pharmaceutics and skin cosmetics professor Randall R. Wickett describes in Scientific American, the exact chemical reactions that occur during the Maillard reaction also cascade across your outermost layer of skin. However, the result is a brown that's not quite the same as the melanin-rich tan caused by UV light. At least it's a whole lot safer.

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You can make good use of those UV rays instead if you install solar panels on your home. Read Lacho Pop's "Solar Power Demystified" to find out how (just make sure you protect yourself while you're installing them). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 13, 2018

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