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Tan Ban

Beware the kiss of the sun.

Eugen Sandow was the archetypal modern bodybuilder, and he performed strength acts as part of his stage show. Although many bodybuilders may not recognize his name today, his physique is familiar, as it is represented in the small statuette presented to each year’s Mr. Olympia winner. Sandow, reportedly, was proud of his pale skin, which he emphasized in his act. He would pose in a boxlike contraption with a style reminiscent of classical sculpture. In effect, he became a living statue. As part of that effect Sandow would cover himself in white makeup, thus appearing even paler than he actually was.

In maintaining pale skin, Sandow was following 1890s fashion. A pallid complexion was a sign of high status. Only the poor, who had to work outdoors and thus were exposed to the sun, had tans. People went out of their way to avoid acquiring any kind of tan. Parasols were popular with women, and bathing suits featured head-to-toe coverage. One ad touting Pond’s vanishing cream in 1912 warned consumers to “beware of the kiss of the sun!”

Times have changed. A bodybuilder attempting to compete today without body color is as a rare as a tiger in a tuxedo. A tan—whether real or artificial—is thought to highlight muscular definition and create subtle shadows that can make competitors appear more defined than they actually are.

Feeding the need for a tan are the bright lights typical of bodybuilding stages, which are notorious for flattening out even the most muscular physique. A competitor’s only defense is to appear onstage with a deep, dark body coloring. The only debate is how to obtain it.

Bodybuilders have several options for acquiring their deep competition tans. The first is simply to lie in the sun—the most natural technique, but one loaded with formidable drawbacks, including premature aging of the skin and promotion of various skin lesions and cancers related to ultraviolet-light exposure. Not to mention sunburn. A sunburn is precisely what it appears to be—an acute inflammation of the skin, often accompanied by a localized stress response that results in water retention. In the case of a sunburn, the water retention appears just below the skin, effectively blurring hard-earned muscular definition. It’s a little like acquiring a sudden deposition of fat just under the skin.

Those who don’t have the time or inclination or who live where temperatures prevent sunbathing, such as in northern climes in the winter, may resort to using tanning booths and beds. Said to provide many of the same effects as natural sun exposure, they’re also concentrated sources of the negative effects of ultraviolet light. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Still other options involve applying tanning makeup preparations or popping tanning pills. Those, too, have their advantages and problems. Tanning makeup, which is often applied two to three times daily for three days prior to a contest, can give the skin a strange tint. The skin colors produced by some brands have been compared to an oil rig worker’s dirty face, or, even worse, a walking carrot. To get coloring that looks real, competitors are usually advised to get a light natural base tan before applying makeup.

The great bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda advised against using any type of tanning makeup. He noted that such preparations tended to absorb light, which would obscure muscular definition. A genuine tan, according to Vince, reflected light and heightened the appearance of muscular definition.

The Supplement Choice

Another option for those who eschew UV exposure is to take tanning pills. There are two kinds. The commercial brands are often based on various types of food coloring, a common one being canthaxanthin, a carotenoid similar to vitamin A but having no nutritional properties. Canthaxanthin is considered harmless, though it can occasionally build up in the eyes. It gives the skin an orange-yellow appearance because it dyes the fat lying just under the skin’s uppermost layers. Other OTC tanning pills contain other carotenoids that work in a similar fashion, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, which do have nutritional value.

Since the carotenoids concentrate in thicker parts of the skin, those who take high doses of beta-carotene often experience orange coloration of the elbows, hands, knees and other areas—harmless, though not aesthetically pleasing. An interesting side note is that carotenoids actually provide a small amount of UV protection (SPF 2), and exposure to UV light dissipates stores of carotenoid in the skin, an oxidation effect. Tanning-pill coloration, besides being deposited in skin, also appears in various body waste substances, including feces, urine, sweat and even tears.

Most tanning pills that have recently entered the market contain the amino acid tyrosine, a precursor of the production of melanin, the skin pigment that provides a tan. The notion that taking tyrosine in any quantity will somehow increase melanin production, however, is wishful thinking.

The other class of tanning pills are actual drugs called psoralens. Representative drugs in that category include Trisoralen and Oxsoralen. They were introduced in the 1950s, when it was noted that popping them promoted darkened skin pigmentation. In 1959 an investigative reporter named John Howard Griffin opted to go undercover to see how black people were treated in the Deep South. Since he was a white man, Griffin chose to experience first-hand the racial disparity of the time by ingesting Trisoralen and using a medical-grade ultraviolet lamp. That effectively darkened his skin to the extent that he passed for a black man. His resulting experiences were chronicled in his book Black Like Me, which was made into a movie starring James Whitmore.

A key point about psoralens is that you still need to expose yourself to ultraviolet light because they make the skin hypersensitive to UV exposure and cause the body to produce extra amounts of melanin. Medically, psoralens are used to treat a disease called vitiligo, characterized by patches of skin that lack melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin. That disease became more well-known when singer Michael Jackson claimed it was the cause of his pale skin. A combination of psoralens and UV light is also used to treat psoriasis, another skin disease.

ALLPsoralen drugs not only provide no sun protection but also make the skin more sensitive to the effects of UV radiation. So using them calls for caution. You must begin exposure gradually, only about five to 10 minutes on the first day. Also, the drugs should never be used for more than 14 days. Taking them for that length of time provides a tanning effect equal to two to three months of normal sun exposure. You must also not use any drugs or topical agents that have photosensitizing effects—diuretics, for example—as they can increase the chances of a severe burn. Certain foods, such as limes, celery and lemons, can also aggravate photosensitivity. So can some cosmetics, even deodorant soaps.

One reason for limiting the use of drugs such as Trisoralen is that they are hard on the liver. You can only imagine the effect of combining a psoralen with large doses of oral anabolic steroids, many of which also stress the liver. The usual method of using Trisoralen is to take two five-milligram tablets two hours before sun exposure. The dosage should never be exceeded, regardless of body size. Doing so can result in immediate and severe side effects, such as burns and blistering. Remember, using these drugs is like placing a magnifying glass on your skin.

Trisoralen sales have been halted in the United States, so the only legal option is to use the similar drug, Oxsoralen. Its dosage is based on bodyweight, and it’s expensive. Meanwhile, tanning drugs have been proven to promote skin cancer in humans. While that’s not likely to occur with short-term use, regular use will increase the odds of developing skin cancer.

Going the Natural Route

The most natural-looking tan is one acquired from exposure to the sun. It’s hardly a benign process; a tan is nothing more than the body’s protective compensation against further damage. So just getting a tan means you’ve already damaged your skin. To dermatologists, the phrase “healthy tan” is an oxymoron. Sunlight is the primary cause of skin aging, wrinkles, blotchy pigmentation and skin cancer. The damage induced by sun exposure is cumulative with time and magnitude of exposure. That deep, dark tan you have today is tomorrow’s wrinkled, sagging, aged skin. There is no getting around it.

The ultraviolet rays leading to the damage come in two varieties, UVA and UVB. A third type, UVC, is absorbed in the atmosphere and is never a factor in skin damage. UVA, or black light, is the dominant form of UV radiation, accounting for 95 percent of the UV energy striking the earth. UVA is also the major wavelength produced in tanning beds and for a long time was thought to represent the benign form of UV exposure. But UVA penetrates the deeper layers of the skin more effectively than UVB and can amplify UVB’s carcinogenic effects. UVA is now considered the main source of skin aging because it damages skin support proteins, such as collagen and elastin.

UVB, though representing only 5 percent of the UV rays reaching Earth, is the major cause of skin cancer, including the deadliest form, melanoma. Melanoma itself is related to pigmented moles called nevi. Having excessive numbers of such moles increases the chances of acquiring melanoma with UV exposure. Other types of skin cancer, such as basal and squamous cell cancers, are both the result of long-term UV exposure.

Skin cancer is related to damage to DNA caused by UVA exposure. The DNA damage occurs before the onset of a tan, and a tan is the body’s reaction to this initial damage. The ability to tan is related to genetic factors, and various skin types have been established based on the ability to tan. Those with type-1 skin never tan and usually burn with unprotected exposure. They’re often redheads or blondes. Type-2 people can also burn easily but can eventually acquire a tan with continued exposure. Type-3 people tan easily and rarely burn. Most whites fall into the types 2 and 3. Type-4 people are naturally darker-skinned people, such as Latinos, Native Americans, people from the Mediterranean area and Asians, who rarely burn and who tan easily. Type-5 people, represented by light-complexioned blacks and East Indians, become noticeably darker with sun exposure. Type-6 are dark-skinned black people.

Protecting the skin against the hazardous effects of UV rays involves both physical and chemical responses. For physical protection wear long pants or skirts and hats, long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV protection. Chemical protections are the various sunscreen products. There are two varieties: barrier protection, in compounds of titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which block all UV radiation, and broad-spectrum sunscreens.

A sunscreen’s effectiveness is based on its SPF, or sun protection factor rating. SPFs range from three to 70 or more. If a person exposed to sun normally begins to burn after 20 minutes of exposure, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would let him or her stay in the sun for 20 times 15 minutes, or five hours, before beginning to show signs of burning. An important point to note is that no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UV rays. An SPF 15 product will block 92 percent of UVB radiation; SPF 30, 96.7 percent; SPF 40, 97.5 percent.1

The problem with the SPF ratings is that they’re based on using copious amounts. Studies show that most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to get its SPF benefit.2 Proper application means that you must put them on at least 30 minutes prior to exposure, preferably using a formula that is waterproof. You need to apply one ounce of the product for complete protection. That amounts to half a teaspoon to the face, neck, arms, shoulders, chest and back. You should apply about one teaspoon to each leg and foot.

Another consideration is that you must reapply the sunscreen after excessive sweating or after swimming. A major UVA blocker in many broad-spectrum sunscreens, Parsol 1789, or avobenzone, begins to degrade after about an hour of UV exposure, meaning that you lose full-spectrum protection after that length of continuous exposure. Sunscreen companies don’t like to publicize that, for obvious reasons. Parsol 1789, however, can be made more stable with certain UVB filtering substances, giving you more bang for your buck.

Future sunscreens on the horizon include Mexoryl Sx, which, like Parsol 1789, provides UVA protection. Another option is to combine sunscreens with topical forms of antioxidants. UV radiation causes most of its skin damage through oxidative effects, and antioxidants can block much of them.3 Several studies show that various nutrients provided in topical form can block UV side effects, such as vitamins C and E, omega-3 fats, green tea and a fern called Polypodium leucotomos.

Sunless tanning products have been around for years. The active ingredient in them is dihydroxyacetone, a 3-carbon sugar. DHA reacts with amino acids in the upper layer of the skin, producing a browning reaction known to chemists as the Maillard reaction. The process is mediated by free radicals, or oxidants, but unlike UV exposure, they don’t alter skin cells or DNA. A DHA-induced tan can provide protection against UVA, but not against UVB exposure. It’s also often an unnatural orange-yellow hue. One study showed that better tanning results can be obtained with DHA if the skin is hydrated, and certain amino acids (lysine, glycine, and histidine) are present.4

Indoor Methods—Madness?

Tanning beds aren’t a safe alterative to sun exposure. According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control, using tanning beds led to 700 emergency room visits because of such injuries as sunburns, infections and eye damage. Some think that a light tan from a tanning bed will provide advanced protection from actual sun exposure, but that’s just not so.5 Indoor tanning is also linked to skin cancer development. While proponents of tanning beds point to the necessity of exposing the skin to UV-ray light for vitamin D synthesis, that vitamin is readily available as a supplement. Since the UV intensity of tanning beds is two to six times greater than that of the sun, you can get the same negative effects of sun exposure in less time.

Knowing about the damage caused by sun exposure and regular use of tanning beds and booths doesn’t stop many from continuing to expose themselves to such UV-based hazards. The motivation may stem from more than just vanity, according to a study published in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.6 It showed that when habitual users of tanning booths were given a drug that blocks endorphins, which are natural feel-good, druglike chemicals produced in the body, they felt uncomfortable using the booths. Without the drug, lying in a tanning bed produced feelings of euphoria and relaxation, which are consistent with the effects of increased endorphin release. The fact that the tanning fanatics felt bad when a drug blocked their endorphin release points to frequent tanning as a form of addiction.

Potential sources of sunless tanning in the future include injection of the melanin-stimulating hormone melanotan, which has the side effect of producing spontaneous erections—that may be one you’ll want to avoid at a nude—or for that matter public—beach! Another substance, thymidine dinucleotide, or pTpT, also increases skin pigmentation minus UV exposure, repairs and prevents UV-induced DNA damage and can be applied topically. A 9-base oligonucleotide still in experimental stages promotes a deeper tan than pTpT. When they’re available, the days of worrying about skin damage from UV exposure may be over.

If you care how your skin looks after your competition days are over, you’d be well advised to minimize UV exposure from any source. Acquiring one tan won’t do much harm, but you can count on cumulative damage from regular exposure to UV radiation. Those who espouse deep, year-round, UV-based tans today will, to paraphrase an old prune commercial, “be rather badly wrinkled tomorrow.” For now, from a health standpoint, it’s best to stick with the tan-in-a-bottle method.


1 Farmer, K.C, et al. (1996). Sun exposure, sunscreens, and skin cancer prevention: a year-round concern. Ann Pharmacother. 30:662-73.
2 Bech-Thomsen, N., et al. (1993). Sunbathers application of sunscreen is probably inadaquate to obtain the sun protection factor assigned to the preparation. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 9:242-4.
3 Pinnell, S.R. (2003). Cutaneous photodamage, oxidative stress, and topical antioxidant protection. J Am Acad Dermatol. 48:1-19.
4 Nguyen, B., et al. (2003). Factors influencing sunless tanning with dihydroxyacetone. Br J Derm. 149:332-40.
5 Levine, J.A., et al. (2005). The indoor UV tanning industry: a review of skin cancer risk, health benefit claims, and regulation. J Am Acad Dermatol. 53:1038-44. IM

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