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Let’s get PHYSICAL

by Archives September 28, 2005

If you’ve flipped through an issue of Muscle and Fitness, Shape or Self lately, you’ve probably noticed a few similarities between the models. They’re tight, they’re toned, and above all, they’re perfectly tanned.

In the world of bodybuilding, where aesthetics is king, maintaining a deep tan is the key to making muscles look their best. Darker skin equals more drastic definition, which is every gym-junkie’s dream. But despite the fact that suntans are associated with good health and vitality, in reality, baking your skin is a bad idea. Though buff and bronzed might appear attractive, the implications of tanning- wrinkles and skin- cancer are anything but. Read on to learn about the science of sun and skin, and how you can get a golden glow without harming your health.

This is your skin. This is your skin on the sun.

You may not think of your skin as much more than a barrier between your insides and the outside world, but it’s actually your body’s largest organ. It also contains cells that help your immune system fight off infections. If you regularly expose your skin to the sun or the bulbs of a tanning bed, you’re not doing your body any favours.

The sun’s rays contain two types of ultraviolet radiation that affect your skin: UVA and UVB. A third type, UVC, is absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere before it reaches you.

UVB radiation is responsible for sunburns in the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), whereas UVA rays penetrate to the lower levels (the dermis), causing the skin to appear tanned. UVB rays are considered the culprit in cases of skin cancer and UVA rays in premature aging of the skin, but recent research suggests that UVA radiation may cause cancer as well.

The race-risk link

A tan is visible proof that your skin is being damaged. Ultraviolet rays stimulate cells known as melanocytes, which produce a brown pigment called melanin to protect your skin from the sun. The more melanin that’s visible, the harder your cells are working to repel the sun’s rays.

The amount of melanin naturally present in the skin differs from person to person. People with a Northern European background tend to have less melanin and are thus quite pale, whereas people hailing from closer to the equator, like in parts of Africa and South America, tend to have more. Based on these disparities, dermatologists have designed a skin-type scale that ranges from Type I (fair skin, blonde or red hair and always burns in the sun) to type VI (black skin and usually doesn’t get sunburned). People whose skin-type is Type V or VI have more natural protection against the sun than those on the lower end of the scale, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The sun doesn’t discriminate when it comes to long-term damage.

Beware the tanning bed

If you believe the hype that tanning beds are a safe alternative to the sun, think again! True, the bulbs emit a mixture of rays that’s UVA-heavy, but they’re harmful nonetheless. The sunburn-skin cancer link has been called into question in recent years, and doctors now believe that frequent exposure to UV rays, even if only to the point of tanning, can eventually cause cancer. Also, the concentration of UVA rays means you’ll be in the fast-lane to wrinkle town regardless.

Tan without the trauma

Still stuck on the notion that bronzed is beautiful? Consider getting your golden glow from another, less harmful source.

Self-tanning lotions have improved dramatically in recent years, and now include active ingredients that stimulate pigment in the skin rather than dying it. The result is a natural-looking tan that is within your own colour range, and worlds away from the sickly orange hue typical of self-tanners of decades past.

Available in creams, gels and sprays, there’s sunless tanning product for every skin type. Prices will vary based on brand name, fragrance, purity and concentration of active ingredients.

If the thought of a do-it-yourself job leaves you looking paler than normal, many higher-end salons now offer “spray tanning” as a sunless alternative. Spray tanning works by airbrushing the body in a special booth with a mist that contains dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This chemical reacts with dead skin cells by cosmetically dying them brown and giving the skin a golden colour that closely resembles a natural tan. The downside of spray tanning is its longevity: You’ve gotta be willing to re-apply every 5 days if you hope to keep your colour.

If you really must maintain a honey-brown hue, be kind to your skin and steer clear of both the sun and the tanning salon. With the variety of sunless products available today, it’s possible to be bronzed without baking your body.

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