Getting a suntan without getting burnt

This isn’t always an easy ambition to achieve.

When pink or white skin is exposed to the sun a number of cells are injured and release a histamine type of substance which produces reddening. After about twenty-four hours that redness slowly fades into a tan, as melanin cells migrate from the deeper parts of the skin to the surface. These melanin cells are intended to provide protection against further exposure. At the same time the skin is toughened and thickened to provide even more protection.

It is the ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays which produces burning and tanning, and since these rays are not visible to the human eye, the visible brightness of the sun is not always an accurate guide to its effectiveness or danger for the sunlover.

Ultraviolet light comes in various sizes. Short wavelength ultraviolet light tends to produce a lot of redness but not much tanning, while long wavelength ultraviolet light does the opposite, stimulating the migration of melanin cells but doing a minimum of damage to the skin cells.

An ideal preparation, designed to provide some protection against sunburn and at the same time promote tanning, would, therefore, provide protection against short wavelength ultraviolet rays while letting the longer wavelength rays get through to the skin.

Chemicals which do this include aminobenzoates such as glyceryl aminobenzoate, benzophenones such as mexenone, and salicylates such as menthyl salicylate or salol.

Mexenone provides good protection because it is relatively difficult to remove with water (and so it stays on when you bathe or sweat). It is available as Cream ER1, Mexe/io/ie Cream DPC and Uvistat. Dioxybenzone is available as Cyasorb UV 24, glyceryl aminobenzoate as Esca/ol 106 and Nipa GMPA, and oxybenzone as Cyasorb UV 9 and Uvinul M-40. Other useful sunscreen agents include Amerscreen P, Cyasorb UV 284, Escalol 506, Spectraban and Uvinul MS 40. Aminobenzoic acid is available as Aminoben^oic Acid Lo/io/i BPC and as Sunburn Cream. There are many, many more. (I gave up when I’d collected the names of fifty products!) Prices vary a lot, so shop around.

All these products work but their efficiency varies. Many manufacturers give their products a rating which tells purchasers how much protection they are getting. Obviously, sunbathers with sensitive skin need greater protection than those with darker complexions. It is important to remember that if kept in great heat, sunscreen agents may deteriorate (the heat inside a parked car can be enough).

When choosing a sunscreen agent read the label carefully before you buy. The product will probably contain one of the substances I’ve named and there should be some advice about how much extra protection you are buying. Choose a product according to how easily you tan and burn.

In addition to these simple screening preparations, there are products designed actually to speed up the tanning process while slowing down the burning processes. Bergasol is a product in this category.

Tablets such as Sjlvasun contain vitamin A . I do not recommend these since a number of reports have shown that vitamin A tablets provide no protection against sunburn.

Dangers of the sun

Too much sunshine may seem like an impossibility to most of us, but, in fact, there are some disadvantages to being overexposed to the sunshine.

To begin with the sun can age human beings by affecting natural elasticity and drying the skin. (The word ‘tanning’ describes a process in the production of leather.) I have described the best ways to cope with dry skin on p147.

More seriously, the sun can burn those unfortunate enough or foolish enough to spend too much time in it. Blondes are more likely to suffer than brunettes and redheads are more likely to suffer than blondes. Black people are far less likely to suffer from overexposure to the sun’s rays since their skins are already rich in melanin and far less sensitive to the sun’s rays.

Sunburnt skin is painful and red. There may also be swelling and blistering. It is important to get out of the sun straight away and to stay out of it. Sunburn may take several days to settle. It may help to have a cool (not cold) bath and to drink plenty of water. Blisters should not be burst. See p96 for more details about the treatment for burns, since a sunburn is no different to any other kind of burn as far as your body is concerned.

Calamine or zinc creams are soothing. I don’t recommend any of the special ‘sunburn’ creams, such as Modantis and Acriflex, many of which contain antiseptics.

Remember that to minimize the danger of being sunburnt you should accustom your body to the sun slowly. Begin with no more than fifteen minutes’ exposure and build up daily.


Some people go red and burn extremely easily – after only a few minutes’ exposure to the sun’s rays. They are usually either allergic to sunlight or taking a prescribed drug which has caused some sensitivity.

Prescribed drugs which can have this effect include some tranquillizers, antibiotics, anti-diabetic drugs, blood pressure drugs, arthritis pills and occasionally even oral contraceptives.

The only solution, I’m afraid, is to keep out of the sun and seek a doctor’s advice.

Getting an artificial tan

Before going on holiday it has become quite common for people to take the edge off their pallor by using a sunlamp, solarium or sunbed. As long as the instructions are followed to the letter, this can -be a good idea. It does at least mean that no days are lost in getting the skin accustomed to the sun’s rays.

The dangers usually arise when the instructions are ignored. Most doctors will be able to tell you horrifying stories about people who have fallen asleep under sunlamps and had their holidays ruined. The secret is, I think, not to rely on an electrical timer or alarm clock, but to have someone wake you up and drag you from the lamp after a few minutes.

It is also important to remember that if you are using an ultraviolet lamp regularly you are likely to dry your skin and produce lots of wrinkles. The sun ages the sunlover mercilessly.

Infrared lamps, by the way, simply provide heat – and that can be provided just as efficiently and effectively by a hot bath or hot-water bottle .

If you can’t wait for the sun and don’t fancy a sunlamp, you can buy your tan in a bottle. Fake tans are really cosmetics rather than medicinal products and I have not listed the ones available here. Most contain either dihydroxyacetate or lawsone.


There are, so I’m reliably told, over 2000 different types of sunglasses on the market. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that people often get confused about the type of sunglasses that are the best buy for them,

There are the polaroid ones which cut out unwanted reflections and which enable the wearer to get a much better look at the talent draping itself alongside the edge of the swimming pool. Then there are the photochromic ones which get darker as the light gets brighter and then get lighter again as the sun goes in. Mirror lenses which enable the wearer to hide behind a pair of mirrors seem to be very fashionable on the ski slopes.

There are contrasting claims for all different types of sunglasses. Some people say that you should never buy cheap ones because they will damage your eyesight; others that the lenses should be made of glass not plastic.

The truth, I’m afraid, is very simple. It just does not matter how much you spend on your sunglasses – the medical value of the cheapest can be just as good as the value of the most expensive. The more expensive sunglasses are usually more fashionable – that is all there is to it. Naturally, it is a good idea to buy a pair that fit fairly well and comfortably. If the pair you choose don’t seem to fit properly you can usually bend the arms a bit to make them either looser or tighter. Make sure that the lenses are clear and don’t have scratches or defects, but unless you normally wear spectacles and want sunglasses made by your optician to your own specifications there is not much point in having special lenses. Indeed, plastic lenses probably are safer – they are less likely to break and cause damage, and remember that sunglasses are often worn during hectic summer sports.

Mirror lenses cut out a lot of light and so they are not really suitable for driving. Lenses that go dark and then go light again (photochromic lenses) are said to be a hazard because they do not lighten quickly-enough when you drive into shadows or tunnels. But then you can always use the manual over-ride mechanism and take them off. Polaroid lenses cause a clash with the windscreen and some people find that distracting when driving. Don’t try wearing sunglasses at night in the mistaken belief that they will cut out the glare of oncoming traffic – they will reduce your vision dangerously.

Finally, one additional word of warning: whatever sunglasses you buy and however much you pay for them don’t think you can look directly at the sun. If you do that you will risk damaging your sight permanently.