- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Sun worshippers and self-tanners alike will watch their skin turn from pasty white to a glorious chestnut brown this summer. Beneath the skin’s surface, a number of chemical changes will occur during that transformation.

Dr. Paula E. Bourelly, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University and director of Olney Dermatology Associates, says the sun causes a chemical reaction that brings about that golden hue.

“You’re stimulating the production of melatonin,” Dr. Bourelly says of how the pigment-producing cells dubbed melanocytes whir into life when exposed to sunlight. The changes begin taking place in the first few hours of exposure to sunlight, but delayed reactions may take days to surface fully. It’s a reason why a sunbather may not look sunburned immediately after leaving the sun but notice reddish coloration blooming later in the day.

“Some of it can be cumulative. You burn yourself without knowing,” Dr. Bourelly says, adding that damage can occur even if the skin doesn’t turn a nasty shade of red.

That damage leads many to try lotions and creams that bring about an approximation of a tan. A decade or so ago, these self-tanning products were known more for the orange glow they left behind than an adequately tanned appearance. These concoctions often contained tyrosine, which caused the skin to develop an extra pigment, one that tended to turn the applicator’s hands as orange as the rest of his or her skin.

Bronzers also have existed for years, though those lotions acted more like conventional dyes, Dr. Bourelly says.

“They create a tanned look, but they can be removed so easily with soap and water,” she says.

Today’s sunless tanners, more sophisticated versions of the bronzer, work chiefly via a chemical known as DHA, or dihydroxyacetone. This chemical, which has Food and Drug Administration approval, interacts with the amino acids in the skin to produce the stained effect.

That means errantly applied products won’t be the stain hazard that past chemicals proved to be. For example, Neutrogena, one of several companies that produce sunless tanners, claims any extraneous spray from its MicroMist Tanning Sunless Spray solution won’t stain the user’s bathroom.

Dr. Bourelly says the disadvantage of sunless tanners is the chance that they won’t be evenly applied across the body.

“A lot of people go to upscale places to exfoliate first,” she says.

DHA works, but not for long. She estimates the body’s tan look will last roughly five to seven days, with the first 24 hours featuring the darkest tans.

Dr. Eliot F. Battle Jr., a cosmetic dermatologist and laser surgeon with the American Academy of Dermatology, says specific sunlight rays affect a person’s skin in different ways.

Sunlight contains both UVA and UVB light. It is UVB rays that cause the burning, Dr. Battle says; UVA rays make the skin change tones by stimulating the cells that create melanin.

The process of a person’s skin reddening after extreme exposure is referred to as erythema, which occurs either when the skin is near direct heat, like from a hot stove, or gets too much sun. The red color, though, specifically arises from a special kind of melanin called pheomelanin. This chemical is responsible not only for the variations in tan color, but also the color of a person’s hair, Dr. Bourelly says.

“The longer the wavelength, the deeper it goes,” Dr. Battle says, meaning UVA rays dig deeper into human skin even though in doing so they wreak less havoc on the person’s overall health.

The melatonin-creating cells already are in the process of making the pigment. Sunlight increases the speed of that production.

Some tanning beds filter out UVB rays and leave the darkening UVA rays to work their transformational magic, Dr. Battle says. He adds that there still is a chance for cell damage and later skin cancer with exposure just to UVA rays.

Dr. Battle agrees that self-tanners offer a far safer alternative to the sun, and they even offer a modest amount of sun protection. He estimates that a self-tanner can offer a sun-protection factor of 4 to the wearer.

A key chemical breakthrough in self-tanners made the current product possible, but so did the public’s understanding of how they should be applied.

Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, credits the user’s understanding of how to apply the various ointments.

“If people exfoliate the skin, even if done gently with an alpha hydroxy acid, it allows the creams to go on more smoothly … that skin is ready to slough off anyway,” Dr. McKinley-Grant says.

Even if they’re applied improperly, self-tanners help the user avoid the damage the sun can cause, damage that affects the body down to its DNA, she says.

“The damage is at the molecular level,” she says, adding that the emergence of any tan means the skin has been damaged to some degree. The evolving DNA results in larger pigment-producing cells, an irreversible change.

The sun also affects the collagen within the skin, one reason why a person with sun-ravaged skin often looks older than someone who kept out of the sun much of his or her life.

“The collagen gets broken up, and you lose volume in the skin,” Dr. McKinley-Grant says. Modern-day lotions try to plump up existing collagen to bring a smoother appearance to affected skin, but these products can’t produce new collagen.

There is a modicum of hope, thanks to laser technology, she says.

“Studies show a little bit of change in the structure of the collagen, making it more stable [with laser treatments],” she says. “It causes new collagen to be regenerated, but it’s more of a scarlike collagen.”

Alexandria resident Patti Reilly learned the hard way about the ravages of the sun. She was diagnosed with melanoma, a form of skin cancer, in 1993 and is trying to teach her teenage daughters the error of her ways.

“I spent my teenage years thinking if I burn long enough I will tan,” says Ms. Reilly, who is fair-skinned.

She counsels her children to use sunless tanners if they must have that sun-kissed look.

“It may not be the deep color you see in the magazines. Not everyone is destined to be that color,” she says.

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