Love the sun? How about a nice tan? It’s not all fun and games in the sun – sun protection is VERY high on the Geeks’ priorities! But how much do you know about the sun, tanning and suncream? It’s time to get Geeky!

What is a tan?

A tan isn’t just something which comes into fashion; it’s a protective mechanism which is extremely important to your skin! We need this natural protection every time we step out into the sun. There are three types of radiation emitted from the sun: UVA, UVB and UVC and they decrease in wavelength in that order. We don’t need to worry about UVC as this is blocked by the ozone layer so doesn’t reach us down here on earth; ozone is a bit like Earth’s own suncream, however it can’t block all the UVA or UVB. This means UVA and UVB can be very dangerous, which is why our clever skin cells have some protection of their own to reduce the amount of UV radiation penetrating our skin by up to 90%! If we were not protected then our skin cell’s DNA and proteins could be damaged leading to problems as serious as cancer.

How do we tan?

Our skin cells are very much alive, so when UV radiation hits the outer cells called keratinocytes destroying the existing melanin, the release of a hormone from the pituitary gland called melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH) is triggered. This makes another cell type deeper in our skin, melanocytes, produce a dark pigment called melanin. The melanocytes have special compartments called melanosomes in which a multi-step biochemical pathway takes place in order to make the melanin, this process is called melanogenesis. Melanin moves to the outer layers of skin where the keratinocytes are and sits on top of their nucleus, as this is where all the important information of the cell is stored, so it is vital that it is well protected. As the cells got in a little bit of a tizz when the melanin was broken down in the first place, they make a bit extra and so we go a darker shade of brown!

The danger starts when we have too much sun for our skin type. Not everyone has the same amount or even type of melanin. Those of us with dark skin produce higher amounts of eumelanin whereas redheads and those with a fine skin tone produce pheomelanin and are less able to produce the dark eumelenin, so therefore have less protection from the sun’s UV rays (these are also the pigments involved in your eye and skin colour!). There are many different skin tones and this is due to the size, number, shape and distribution of melanosomes as well as how actively they produce the types of  melanin. As those with naturally pale skin are less protected they must take more care than others to avoid the danger of the sun. Without extra care they would get sunburn which occurs when the UV hitting the skin is too much for the melanin and you can no longer protect yourself. Sunburn is an immediate danger and the skin cells and vessels that are damaged swell as they release chemicals. Even if you have never burnt don’t count yourself too lucky as there are many delayed effects that can take up to 20 years to appear! As well as damage to your eyes, one of the major dangers is cancer. The most severe form is a melanoma as this cancer can spread to other parts of the body. Slightly less serious but more on the beauty side of things, too much sun can ruin your skin, although you might think you look better with that golden tan the long term effects due to skin cell damage are enough to make your skin crawl! Well, not crawl… but it could end up looking like leather, full of wrinkles and aged twice as much as you are!

So how do we stop all this?!

The simple answer is suncream! That sticky white stuff that smells like your last holiday is much more important than many people think. Suncream is photoprotection from a carcinogen – that means it will protect us from the harmful, cancer causing UV radiation. It blocks the radiation so it doesn’t reach our skin so can therefore no longer cause damage. It blocks UV in two ways: inorganic particles act by reflecting or scattering the light away from us and organic compounds absorb the UV and release it as heat. However as we all know, suncream only works to a certain level and must be used properly. SPF means sun protection factor and this tells you how much longer you can stay in the sun than without any suncream. You must also check that the suncream you’re buying protects you from UVA as well as UVB, these are called broad spectrum suncreams and are now widely available.

So although a tan can look great always remember the dangers that come with it. Get to know your skin type so you can take the best action to protect it and never forget the suncream!

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