Sun Savvy: The Truth about Tanning

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Melanin is our friend. It is actually a class of polymers and an antioxidant whose primary purpose is to protect the cells and ward off free radical damage. So, when you stop and think about it, a suntan is simply an immune system response. It’s the body’s way of attempting to protect skin cells from radiation. In fact, the sunburn that results from prolonged ultraviolet exposure is an inflammatory response that assists in clearing away any cells that were possibly mutated.



As aestheticians, we know that all ethnicities have the same number of melanocyte cells. Constitutive melanogenesis is a complex process. In short, the process starts when melanoblasts are called to developing tissue. The pigment is formed when tyrosinase converts the amino acid tyrosine into dopaquinone, which goes through various stages of oxidation to become the melanins eumelanin and pheomelanin. Pigment granules are transferred through the cell’s dendrites into 30 to 40 keratinocytes. Granules then migrate to the upper layer of the skin. However, facultative melanogenesis, which can be triggered by factors like ultraviolet radiation, is the biggest factor in skin pigmentation.


The tanning process triggers increased polymerization of existing melanin and kickstarts the melanocyte stimulating hormone (MsH) into action. Melanin holds onto toxins, like ultraviolet radiation, to protect vital DNA within the cells’ nuclei. That’s why eumelanin huddles together to protect the skin, causing it to darken over time. Clients need to understand that sun damage is cumulative. As long as those skin cells have the memory that they are damaged and in danger, melanin will continue to migrate to that area en masse.



In addition to various forms of cancer, ultraviolet radiation can cause collagen fibers to break down prematurely, resulting in uneven pigmentation and textural disorders.


  • actenic keratoses
  • actenic cheilitis
  • fine to deep rhytides
  • solar elastosis



  • lipofuscian
  • poikiloderma
  • solar lentigines
  • plus vascular disorders
  • telangiectasia
  • couperose
  • rosacea



The main types of ultraviolet radiation are UVA, UVB, and UVC. However, UVC does not actually reach the ground. Of the two types of light that do penetrate the atmosphere, UVB is the strongest and is also believed to be the cause of most forms of skin cancer.


Since the amount of radiation may shift throughout the day and vary from season to season, aestheticians offer a basic formula to help clients protect against sunburn, skin damage, and possibly skin cancer. Layering sunscreen over an antioxidant at least 30 minutes before exposure offers the best protection available at this time. The American Cancer Society also suggests adding another layer of precaution by wearing protective clothing, as well.


Aliesh Pierce 2019Aliesh Pierce, L.E., is the founder of AskAliesh, an online e-learning platform. Current classes cover pigmentation, chemical peels, and cosmetic ingredients.

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