Melanin is the pigment that gives our hair, skin and eyes their color. It is produced, not only in the skin, but also in many internal organs.
In fact, Melanin plays many more roles in the human body than coloring. In many Asian countries, there is an abundance of cosmetic products with the promise to make the skin lighter and in countries with a majority of fair-skinned population, cosmetics that gives a darker skin-color, are often very popular.
This article, however, is focused on how Melanin supports the process of tanning.
In short, tanning (if done correctly) increases the production of Melanin for the protection of cells towards over-exposure from Ultra-Violet (UV) light.
This is how the tanning process stimulates the production of Melanin and makes it darker:
1. The UVB-component in sunlight (or from the lamps in a tanning bed) stimulates the Melanocytes-cells in the outer skin-layer (epidermis) to produce more Melanin.
2. The UVA-component in Sunlight (or from the lamps in a tanning bed) oxidizes the new and also the already existing Melanin to a darker color.
3. The now darkened Melanin forms a barrier around the cells in the body and uses its black or dark brown color to diffuse additional UVB-rays that could be harmful.
The brown Melanin molecules also move towards the very surface of the skin in order to form an additional barrier towards over-exposure from UV-light. And, voila, you have created your body’s natural sun-protection as well as got a nice and healthy tan.
Now that you know the basic role of Melanin in the tanning process, let’s have a look at what might interfere with the natural manner of Melanin creation and protection.
The most common interference is caused by chemicals in sun-screen cosmetics. The purpose of such chemicals is to block the UV-rays from reaching your body. They do this by forming either a diffusive or reflexive barrier on your skin. It is a good idea to use sun-block chemicals if you suddenly find yourself having to spend long periods of time in strong sunlight.
The problem with most sun-protection lotions is, however, that they very often block only the UVB-component in sunlight. Thus they let through the UVA which will still oxidize your existing Melanin and give you a surface tan. The UVA will also add to the photo-aging of your skin. However, because the UVB-rays are blocked, your body will not create any additional Melanin and your natural UV-protection will not increase.
Another reason for not using sun-screen is because by blocking the UVB, your body will be denied all its possibilities to create Vitamin D.
In general, I don’t believe it is a very good idea to destroy, by unnecessary usage of sun-screen cosmetics, the delicate balance between UVB, UVA and Melanin that has evolved in the human body for millions of years.
Another cause of interference is to try to enhance the body’s natural production of Melanin.
The two most common chemicals for this are Psoralen and Tyrosine. They are both supposed to increase the creation of Melanin but they do it in quite different ways.
Psoralen increases the photosensitivity of the skin by making it more receptive to UV-light. Even if this can be useful in medically supervised treatments of skin-conditions such as psoriasis, it is not recommended as a method to build more Melanin for a darker tan.
Tyrosine, on the other hand, is the main amino-acid that the melanosomes within the melanocytes uses to create Melanin. The verdict is still out on if topically applied tyrosine (which is a common ingredient in tanning lotions) really does increase the production of Melanin in the skin. In any case, tyrosine seems to be the best bet if you want to assist the job of the melanosomes to make more Melanin.
Lately, another substance has emerged claiming to add to the body’s Melanin storage.
The unapproved and untested Melatonan is attributed both to give a chemical tan that could help to prevent skin-cancer, as well as to prevent erectile dysfunction. My view on Melatonan is that this is just another attempt from the pharmaceutical industry to cash in on the sun-scare hysteria created by themselves and their peers in the chemical sunscreen industry. Additionally, with the added attractiveness as an alternative to Viagra, it will probably be a big-seller.
My personal preferred sun-protection method is to assist my body’s natural production of Melanin by regular and moderate tanning. When the natural sun is too low in the sky for UVB to reach the earth (or when the weather is bad), I use tanning beds with tubes emitting a fair amount of UVB.
My experience is that not only does this method keep my level of Vitamin D at a consistent healthy level, but it also provides me with a natural sun-protection, corresponding to at least SPF 15, when I travel for a vacation to a sunny place.
I do use tanning lotions based on Aloe Vera or coconut-milk with a lot of added natural antioxidants and other skin-caring ingredients. Tyrosine is often included in those tanning lotions.
These lotions definitely help me to keep my skin moisturized, young and smooth and ready to absorb sunlight in the most efficient way.
In closing, maybe you are thinking that I have forgotten DHA (Dihydroxcyacetone) in the list of Melanin-stimulators? Then you should know that the only function of DHA (and its cousin, Erythrulose) in tanning-lotions is to oxidize the already existing and dead Melanin on the outer skin-layer into a darker color. Thus DHA does not influence your body’s production of Melanin.