We Are Sunshine

Derm: Tans are Nature’s Sunblock

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

British dermatology leader Dr. Sam Shuster says that a suntan is not damage — it is nature’s intended design and that anyone who thinks otherwise should “tell that to Darwin.” Shuster’s comments on suntans are published as a portion of the book “Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We’re Told About Food and Health” available on

Here is an excerpt about sunscreens, UV exposure and base tans:

What then should we do about UV exposure and sunscreens? The short answer is that in moderate climates like the UK, apart from avoiding sunburn and staring at the sun, it doesn’t matter what we do, because the risk of exposure is trivial. Of course, children have to learn how much sun they can take without burning, and their parents need to ensure they get a gradual UV exposure in order to achieve a protective tan (that is more important in children with ginger hair and freckles, most of whom will need to take care not to burn throughout adult life). In the UK, there is no point in trying to minimise sun exposure to avoid skin cancer because our sun is usually too weak to be a danger. Although sunscreens will reduce epithelioma formation they have not been shown to prevent melanomas. The use of a sun blocker in countries such as the UK could be harmful, by impairing Vitamin D synthesis in the skin, causing a risk of osteoporosis.

We still have a lot to learn about what may be the silent benefits of sun exposure. We do not know the significance and purpose of the profound changes in immune mechanisms, the extraordinary improvement in mood and the alleged decreased risk in bowel and prostatic cancer experienced after sun exposure. We may do more harm avoiding these advantages than anything we might gain from the uncertain benefits of sun avoidance.

But not all of the sun’s benefits are uncertain, particularly the protective effect of a suntan. Since there is some epidemiological evidence to suggest that sunburn in children may be more harmful later in life, parents have been told that sun exposure must be avoided in childhood. However, if you take a close look at people who were sunburnt as children, you will see areas of white skin that doesn’t tan because the pigment cells have been lost by the sunburning. Such skin will always be oversensitive to sun. It is evident that the original sunburn, and subsequent damage, would have been less had there already been a protective tan.

Excessive avoidance and UV screening is a danger because it does not allow a tan, nature’s own sun block, to develop and as a result exposure is likely to cause sun-burn. The dogma, now fossilised in print, is that any tan is a sign of skin damage. Tell that to Darwin. Pigmented melanocytes in the skin are a system that protects it from excessive UV, which evolved long before the advent of sunscreens. Even if there was hard evidence that melanoma was UV-induced it would be all the more important to keep a protective tan.

It must now be evident that the effect of the sun on the skin is in desperate need of illumination, and that the prophylactic message, particularly on melanoma, is unreliable. By presenting the fragility of the case against the dangers of UV I hope I will provoke consideration of real cause of melanoma.

Dr. Sam Shuster is Emeritus Professor of Dermatology at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Honorary Consultant to the Department of Dermatology, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. This is an edited version of a chapter in “Panic Nation? Unpicking the myths we’re told about food and health” edited by Stanley Feldman and Vincent Marks. Buy this book from