Understanding Ultraviolet – Suntan vs. sunburn?

You can tell it’s springtime when the glossies start two waves of attack on our winter-fat selves: bikini shape and tan.

Both topics make every girl I know feel utterly uncomfortable. While we won’t discuss, I repeat, we won’t discuss bikini issues and beach body in 2 weeks promises now (*suppresses huge rant*), the understanding of what the sun does or does not to our skin is blurry – and a Lot of facts out there are confusing.

So let’s get some facts straight. As usual, there will be questions left unanswered.

1. You always need sunscreen, not just in summer. Even behind glass. Even when it’s cloudy.


UVA and UVB rays are the rays that matter here.
Most of the UVB rays are stopped by the ozone layer, and then a mix of UVA and UVB rays reaches down to where we sit. Ordinary, non-treated glass is letting most UVA rays pass while stopping most of the UVB rays. That’s why you can’t produce vitamin D by sitting by your closed window. Clouds, smog but also season and latitude all influence how many UV-rays are effectively reaching your skin. But they do reach it. All the time – just not enough to give you vitamin D, apparently.

2. What about vitamin D btw?

Our body needs vitamin D but can’t produce it on its own and gets only insufficient amounts of it from food (AFAIK, eggs, mackerel, salmon and raw shiitake are good dietary picks for vitamin D).

Our cells need UVB rays to convert a substance called 7-Dehydrocholesterol into Previtamin D which in turn becomes vitamin D. Researchers suggest that about 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM – 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs without sunscreen should be enough for efficient vitamin D synthesis.

To me, 5–30 minutes sounds pretty vague. What about fair skin? What about dark skin? What about winter or summer? Do we need to walk around 30 minutes in winter, and 5 in summer? And how am I supposed to flash arms and legs in winter? Hm…

UPDATE “sun shower”:
Professor Dr. med. Uwe Trefzer, head of the skin health expert centre Dermatologikum Berlin told me that in his expert’s opinion, a vitamin D deficiency can only occur during the polar night. In his words, exposing ones hands and face to the sun for 15 minutes per day is more than enough.

3. Can I get vitamin D from supplements?


There are even vegan options (derived from lichen, mmmh, lichen – I didn’t know you could pronounce it either way, magical English language; apparently both “lee-tchan” and “like-an” are correct, just stick with one, they say).

But then: How good are vitamin D food supplements?
Researchers say that supplements’ effect on health aren’t even certain – while the natural vitamin D is important for our health. (We already know that some synthetic vitamins can have bad effects.)
In addition, vitamin D is toxic if overdosed and influenced by many factors within our body. I’m not sure just how somebody is supposed to measure an individual dose.

Well then, I’m out for a 15 minutes walk!

4. Yeah, but is UV-light good or bad now?

Well. It’s… both.
Sunlight is a cancerogen with health benefits.

UVA and UVB rays damage the skin, cause DNA mutations (UVB directly, UVA by producing free radicals), break the skin’s collagen fibres (=photoaging). But then we need them (view Q2 above).

On the other hand, we need vitamin D to fight diseases, and to confuse us more, research has revealed one more contradictory phenomenon: apparently, sunlight exposure has helped melanoma patients to survive (they just don’t seem to know exactly how it works yet so patients mustn’t run out sunbathing without medical consultations!). Some people suggest that UVA damage without UVB damage AND support (=vitamin D) is unhealthy for skin conditions, while the – natural – combination of damage and protection that occures during cautious UVA-UVB exposure might trigger the healing processes in the skin. We can easily guess that UVA without UVB happens indoors – or in sunbeds.

The bottom line for me?
Definitely no sunbeds.
No self-tanning.
A lot of shiitake.
And one walk in the park (or sitting on my rooftop terrace) for 15 minutes daily. 

A not-so sunny day, a deserted Baltic sea beach – and UV-rays galore.

5. Suntan is natural protection against UV! Rock’n’roll!

YES, but it comes at a cost… Look.

When UVA rays hit your skin, they oxidate the melanin that sits in the skin, giving you a tan quickly. The darkened skin isn’t protective yet – the effect is solely cosmetic.

When UVB rays hit your skin, they damage your DNA thus triggering the cells to produce more melanin. This new melanin helps protect the skin from further UV-damage. Ironically only after some damage is done.

Oh, and most sunbeds work with UVA rays only. Do the math.

6. UV-rays damage our eyes, so sun glasses are a must whenever sun’s out!


UV-rays are hazardous to human eyes. Make sure your shades’ lenses are marked/labelled UV400. Otherwise the sunscreen might be insufficient! Standards differ internationally; for example the European standards require not only sufficient filtering but also the use of non-toxic materials.

7. If you are pre-tanned using a selftanning lotion, your risk of sunburn is slower.

BOLLOCKS. And: dangerous bollocks.

Right after the use of a selftan your sun-exposed skin gets 180% more free radicals!

Here’s an alarming quote from a 2007 German study:
„Using the RSF method three different self-tanning agents were analysed and it was found, that in DHA-treated skin more than 180% additional radicals were generated during sun exposure with respect to untreated skin. For this reason the exposure duration in the sun must be shortened when self-tanners are used and photoaging processes are accelerated.“

8. And if I need a bit suntan?

Well, define „need“.
No, I hear you, I hear you 😀

In fact, I’m whiter than Snowwhite (just not as coal-black-haired or blue-eyed) or any redhead (just minus the red)!
Even when I’m tanned and gorgeous (well, what I think is tanned and gorgeous) and I happen to stand next to my normal-tanned friends, I still look like your average cellar geek. Whhhiiiiiiite.

But I think there’s a difference between an unhealthy ghost-like appearance and a healthy fair complexion.
If your iron and carotene and whatnot levels are good, and you’re healthy, and had enough sleep, fair complexion can look just as beautiful, glowy, and summery. Only different 😉

To get back to the question: self-tanners seem to be okay if you don’t sunbathe at all in the days after application or apply tons and tons of sunscreen. Logic then suggests that you shouldn’t use sunscreen with self-tanning agents either.

Maybe you want to consider faking tan with an oil-based, shimmery product or even carrot oil.
Maybe you just want to stick to eating carotenoid-rich food.

Check out my carrot oil DIY sun oil + this post about the most attractive complexion, while at that 😉

9. Sunscreen is toxic anyway!


First of all: You need a sunscreen if you’re sunbathing.
You have to pass on it if you want your vitamin D
. Yeah, it’s no picnic 😦

And if you need one, you’ll want one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Thanks to the endless wisdom of The Internet, you can check products before you even head for the shop.

Now the meat.

Sure, some chemical filters (or nano-particles of our good old friend, Titanium Dioxide) are reported to be potentially just as harmful as sunbathing without sunscreen at all – Benzophenone, Octocrylene, Octyl Methoxycinnamate, Oxybenzone, 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor – a few others have even been banned.

So how do you pick a good sunscreen?
First, remember that UV rays activate a lot of chemical processes, some of which we don’t even properly understand yet.
So a sunscreen product should be as pure as possible – without Formaldehyde or formaldehyde donors, for example, containing no harsh or potentially irritant additives, no alcohol or fragrance.
Checking organic products sounds like a good starting point to me.


The sunscreen I’m using is this unscented zink-oxide-based one by Badger Balm.
You might want to check out my colleague Sonja’s fabulous review of a clean and marvellous Living Libations sunscreen.

What I do additionally is selecting clothes and accessories wisely; paying attention that the back of my neck, my hands, my ears and my lips as well as skin around the eyes are protected, either with an additional sunscreen (sticks are great) or with an extra-layer of fabric – where possible. I’m also trying to establish a parasol trend and live by a „proud with what I’ve got“ attitude 😉

10. How much sun exposure is SAFE, after all?


I’m not kidding you – there is no dead certain reply to this today. I’ve put together all them facts for me and you, but you can see they are quite contradictory and scary. The bottom line for me is – I’ll try to get as much vitamin D from food as I possibly can (the lack of vitamin D is really something to avoid), don’t sunbathe at all, always (always, not just in summer) protect the most exposed skin (lips, nose, ears, neck, shoulders, hands) and keep reading all new research that pops up.

And what are you going to do? 


Geeking out about all things truly green, healthy and ethical over at BEAUTYCALYPSE.com (Avatar illustration by A. Goncharenko)

13 Responses

  1. Mel

    Fabulous and informative article! As for me, since you asked, best to go with moderation. Don’t overexpose the skin to the sunlight but when I do go for a swim and hangout at the beach for a bit, I stick to 30+ which makes sure I don’t get burnt and still get a healthy glow.

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