The science of sunbathing

Looking out my window right now I can see some blue peeking through the clouds, the temperature is above 10ºC and my calendar tells me it is the end of May. Therefore it is officially the great British summer. Instagram is already filling up with images of barbeques, tents and people pretending to like salad, which means it must nearly be time for some sunbathing! From sun cream to mossie bites (next post) to prolonging your tan – I have used science to get your summer sorted.

Look how good at sunbathing I am...
I am clearly a sunbathing expert…

The science behind how sun cream works:

Sun cream contains a whole cocktail of chemicals that prevent the suns UV radiation from sinking into our skin and causing damage. These include inorganic chemicals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which literally create a barrier layer on the skin and reflect off the UV waves, scattering them away from the skin. The organic chemicals work differently; their chemical bonds absorb the UV radiation, and then release the energy as heat. The list of chemicals on the back of the bottle is pretty long, this is because using a wide range of organic chemicals means there is a variety of bond lengths, so the full range of UVA and UVB wavelengths can be absorbed – this maximises the protection. These organic chemicals do eventually break down after absorbing lots of UV radiation, that’s why you have to reapply sun cream regularly to avoid burning, (and you really don’t want to burn – particularly on your thighs/bum the day before zip lining – new levels of pain).

How to prolong your tan:

When our skin tans, particular pigments in the top layer are activated. Skin cells are in a constant cycle of renewal, so when the pigmented cells on the top layer turnover (old ones die, new ones made) the tan will fade. The cycle of skin cell renewal lasts around 10 days so in theory your tan could be gone just over a week after returning from holiday. A fading tan makes me so sad, so I looked at ways of clinging on to the colour.

One way to ensure a longer lasting tan is to prevent yourself from burning. This is because the burnt skin is damaged so it will regenerate really quickly, causing you to peel – not a good look. Another idea is that if you exfoliate your skin before a holiday, the cells will be at the beginning of the cell cycle when you start to tan, so in theory the tan should last longer. I have personally found this quite effective. Another idea is to moisturise like your life depends on it, this hydrates the skin cells which extends their life. As your skin is hydrated from the inside too it is a good idea to drink loads of water to help fight the fade.

Sunbathing can be as addictive as heroin:

A study from Harvard has looked at how addictive sunbathing can be and the results are a tad scary. Sunbathing was found to release endorphins, which are the same happy hormones released when we exercise to give us that feel-good buzz. This natural high feels so good that our body begins to crave it, the same way that an addict would crave a high from drugs. This is an issue because as you probably know, too much sun can dramatically increase your risk of skin cancer. This is why we need to tan with care, tanorexia is a recognised addiction and it is becoming increasingly common.

By the time you’ve read this, the British summer is probably nearly over, so you better quickly share this and get outside before the rain comes back.

Till next time,




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