Of course, this is not intended to be a guide like: “How to sunbath correctly” or “The perfect sun-tanning method, no more sunburns all over your body”.
I mean, if you ask my mom why we sunbath, she has a simple answer: to get tanned, to get browner! Sunbath is good for your skin and for your body. This is simply the common answer you’ll find around people, but I thought about it, and now that I know how the melanine-production process works I asked myself if we are dumb or what.
During my Embriology, Anatomy, Histology and Cell differentiation exam (yes we have such a controversial huge exam), we learned that melanocytes, melanine-producing cells, are somewhat particular. In contrast of what one could think, not every cell in your skin produce melanine. Instead only melanocytes can do it, and they are not so numerous on your outer wish-I-was-tanner layer of skin. Melanocytes produce melanine and other UV-radiation-protecting substances in their body and through many extensions they take contact with epithelial cells (keratinocytes) and pass them these products. Probably if epithelial cells could produce melanine by themselves, sunbathing would be a much quicker process.
Ok so we have few Melanocytes that produce melanine for every other epithelial cells on your skin. But what is Melanine? Without being excessively complicated, Melanine is a group chemical class with different chemical composition with the important characteristic of being anti-oxidants and sun-protecting, which pretty much are the same thing. There are many substances in an organism which acts like anti-oxidants, for example in a photosyntethic apparatus there are load and load of them. This is because some oxigen products can be over reactive and damage many components. UV radiations can produce many over-reacting oxigen species, so many Anti-Oxidant substances are needed.
This is a natural defense brought up by evolution to contrast the non-optional solar exposition of some species. The more radiations you absorb the more sun-protecting substances you’ll need. That’s why black people are “darker” than white people, that’s why albino people have problem to over-exposure to sun radiations and that’s why we get the apparently so good tan after many hour of sunbathing.
Now, I don’t really know why darker skin have been raised to a beauty ideal like being over-skinny for example, but that’s another question.. I don’t mind sunbath for a while. On the other hand it seems that it really does good to our skin and our body. Of course, it’s relevant to notice that sunburn can be BAD, they can produce skin cancer and serious skin problems, fever and so on..
The idea that came to me while I was sunbathing on a Rodes beach this summer is what are we doing to our bodies? We get exposed to UV radiations to get darker, because it’s pretty (which is discutible). But think about it: we are forcing our body to defend ourself from UV radiations to avoid permanent damage to our DNA, proteins and so on, only to get a tan. Of course you’ll get darker! You’re probably going to have many problems if you won’t!
We use to think that sun radiations are good for our body, if moderated. And that the Sun meeting with our skin produces the well-known appreciable golden colour. But that’s not true! Over-exposing to UV radiations is one of the many ways we do to poison our body! It’s only because a such efficient process exists within us that our golden skin will appear. Moderate sunbathing CAN be good, but if melanonocytes wouldn’t do their job even the smallest exposure can be damaging. Sunbath as long as you want, but at least think about it in the right way.
And that’s all. Sometimes I think that this process would be an emergency engine to protect us, and we are abusing it to fulfill our beauty standards. I don’t know why, but once in a while it makes me sad 😦
Next time you’ll be basking under the sun in some beautiful beach, at least think about all you melanocytes working to keep you healthy and ready to enjoy your summer. And while you’re appreciating the color of your skin, Let me tell you another story.