Lori Anderson: High price for a sunny disposition

Suntans once indicated lower social status, but that's changed. Picture: Getty
Suntans once indicated lower social status, but that's changed. Picture: Getty
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‘A girl simply has to be tanned”. Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships but when Coco Chanel uttered her maxim in 1929, she launched legions of honey-coloured movie stars, a £5 billion tanning industry and now a darkening legacy of melanoma.

Our relationship with the sun is long and complicated but only in the past 100 years have we deliberately sought it out to toast our skin. For women in particular, beauty went hand in hand with a pale complexion and in ancient Minoan culture women deliberately sought out the shade. As Peter Frost, the anthropologist wrote in Fair Women, Dark Men: “In earlier times, in settings where people were of a similar ethnic background, the main difference in skin colour was between men and women. This is because women have less melanin in their skin and less blood in its outer layers. In simpler language, women are fairer and men browner and ruddier. This older meaning has been largely forgotten in modern Western culture, although we still speak of the ‘fair sex’ and the “tall, dark, and handsome man’.”

Tanning arrived with the 20th century, for in 1903 Niels Finsen advocated the health benefits of the sun when he discovered that it produced Vitamin D in the body which cured ailments such as rickets.

Seven years later a scientific expedition set off to Tenerife to study “heliotherapy”. Yet the vogue for a brown caramel-coloured skin was triggered in 1929 when Coco Chanel accidentally suffered sunburn on a yacht in the French Riviera and returned to Paris where her friends took delight in her darker new look and wanted one just like it. Prior to this a sun burnt or browned skin was a mark of poverty and the consequence of long hours toiling outdoors.

Tanning, named after the leather process, became increasingly popular when the movie industry headed west from New York to Hollywood and the golden coast of California and would eventually reach its apogee in the mahogany hue of the actor George Hamilton, or Ra, as he should be known.

We have all enjoyed a burst of good weather over the past week or so and worshipped the sun. When the glorious rays in which we have all ritually bathed finally slip behind our national curtain of leaden grey clouds we will all feel a wave of sadness – and last week an American dermatologist sought to explain why.

David Fisher of Massachusetts General Hospital has published a paper in the journal, Cell, in which he argues that sunbathing triggers a rush of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, which are produced by exposure to the sun’s UV radiation. However, once the sun and the resultant endorphin rush are withdrawn, we may slump into a mild withdrawal.

The subject of his team’s experiments were not creosote-stained sun worshippers but an unfortunate collection of shaven mice who over a six-week period were subjected to the equivalent of 20-30 minutes in the midday sun in Orlando. The creatures’ beta-endorphin levels spiked during treatment but afterwards, when they were given a drug to block the effects of the endorphins, those mice exposed to UV light showed classic withdrawal symptoms.

As Dr Fisher explained: “This provides a potential explanation for the ‘sun-seeking’ behaviour that may underlie the relentless rise in most forms of skin cancer.”

A voice closer to home has urged caution, Richard Weller, a dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh, said the relevance of mice and men was not yet clear. “Mice are nocturnal animals, covered in fur, which avoid the light so one must be cautious about extrapolating from these experiments to man.”

While further research is required and Dr Fisher is currently embarking on a study that investigates if falling endorphins in humans lies behind our post-holiday blues, I think we can all agree that the sun is deeply attractive and a short bath in her rays can be almost medicinal. Our shoulders relax, our breathing slows down, our blood pressure drops and our mood magically lightens.

I’ve often wondered how much happier we would be as a nation if we could enjoy more time out from under the national blanket of grey clouds. The problem is that we can have too much of a good thing.

Icarus taught us all that the sun is an attractive goal but if one gets too close for too long the consequences can be fatal. We may not tumble from the sky but years later the legacy of those long, lingering days slathered under coconut oil could result in a deadly skin cancer.

Over the past ten years melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease, has risen by 78 per cent in men and almost 50 per cent in women. As Socrates almost said: “Moderation in all things… and don’t forget the sun block.”