Before 1920, having tanned skin was associated with working outdoors and indicated that you carried out manual labour. The societal ideal was pale skin which showed that you were rich enough to stay indoors, although the pursuit of pale skin often involved powders containing lead and mercury, which weren’t exactly great choices from a health perspective. The Western Europe attitudes started to change in the 1920s when Coco Chanel started to popularise the idea of a tanned skin, and this trend accelerated through the explosion in cheap air travel from the 1960s, so that having a tan showed you could afford to take the time off work and lounge around catching some sun’s rays.
The concept of desirable skin colour varies around the world. Whites try to tan, whilst across Asia the sale of skin lightening creams and lotions is at an all time high. Your natural skin tone is determined by genetics and that is directly correlated to how much UV radiation you are exposed to. The higher the level of UV radiation, the darker the tone of indigenous skin. As some populations of humans moved to more northern latitudes there was a shift in genetics. With less UV radiation causing damage, there was a positive selection of individuals with lighter skin, who could synthesise more vitamin D. As societies changed from hunting to agriculture, there was a need to maximise the vitamin D synthesis to make up for the loss from the diet. About 40,000 years ago the mutations for pale skin emerged in both the East Asian and Western European populations.
The most important pigment in the skin is called Melanin. Specialised cells call Melanocytes make the pigment and pack it into the Keratinoctyes that make up a layer in the skin. Melanin is an important molecule as it controls the amount of UV radiation that can penetrate the skin. Some UV radiation is needed for vitamin D synthesis, but too much is harmful. UV light is divided into 3 different wavelengths of light, UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. UV-C and some UV-B are absorbed by the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which is a very good thing as without this absorption UV levels would be dangerously high (and quite possibly life on earth wouldn’t exist!). Some UV-B is absorbed by the epidermis (the upper layer of the skin but UV-A can penetrate further into the skin and interacts with the cells in the dermis. UV-B causes an increase in melanin production and UV-A causes the melanin molecules to change and become darker.
However, tanning is not the only consequence of UV exposure. Although no-one knew it during the 1960s, too much exposure to sunlight is the cause of 90% of all skin cancers, eye damage, immune system suppression and all the signs of ageing associated skin damage. As this message started to become understood, the tide has turned against tanning salons, and anyone out in the sun was urged to wear a hat, cover up exposed skin and slap on the sun cream….and then we hit another snag. In March 2018, Hawaii announced that it was bringing in laws to ban sun creams containing oxybenzone, which is the most widely used UV absorbing molecule in all sun creams in use today.
Once upon a time, Para-amino benzoic acid (PABA) was widely used in suncreams. Patented in the 1940s PABA was the first molecule to be used absorb UV-B in sun creams, but it fell out of favour as it stained clothes and caused allergic reactions. Then came Oxybenzone as the next generation molecule with the ability to absorb UV-A and UV-B. Oxybenzone isn’t just used in sun cream, but as a UV protection for a wide range of plastics too. Hawaii have recognised a study that showed that tiny amounts (microgrammes per litre) of oxybenzone cause coral larvae to stop moving around and prevented them from developing a hard skeleton. To understand the concept of just how toxic this is, that’s lethal levels at half a teaspoon in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
It’s time for a switch away from the UV absorbing molecules like PABA (still in use as the derivative padimate O) and oxybenzone. Perhaps we need to return to the mineral reflective suncreams with their chalky finish. Have a look at the label on your suncream. There are several alternatives hitting the market now, although for some of them the claims can be hard to verify. Perhaps the safest option for us and the environment would be to take the lesson from Victorian society and just cover up? Stop putting any plastic solutions into the sea including the lotions you slather on.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.