Why sunbathing could actually be good for you

My name is Sarah Jagger and I sunbathe.

There. I said it. And it feels good to get it off my sunkissed chest. As a beauty expert, using the words ‘tan’ and ‘natural’ in the same sentence is as good as blasphemy (in beauty vocabulary the term ‘sunbathing’ is practically profane).

So now that I’ve come clean, let me explain: I believe that there IS such a thing as a healthy tan. And by ‘tan’, I don’t mean getting ‘sun damage’ (‘sun-damage’, by the way, is borderline sacrilegious).

Let’s explore sun damage (sorry) for a minute. You know those cute little freckles that scatter themselves across youthful noses? Well, over time those cute little freckles start to join up and what you’re left with is a big brown splodge otherwise known as sunspots or pigmentation. Skin cancer risk aside, they look awful and age the complexion tenfold. Over the years I’ve lasered away those splodges and peeled my way to a better complexion using retinol and other prescription skincare. It hasn’t been easy. Downtime- that’s red, raw, sore, flaking skin -is a big part of getting rid of sun damage. We all know that prevention is better than cure – but more on that later.

I grew up in Australia, capital of melanoma and the home of premature ageing. The UV protecting ozone layer is thinner here than anywhere in the world (except Antarctica in spring) because of environmental abuse. Some say its aerosol cans and others blame farting cows but really we have no idea why the Aussie ozone has depleted more than other countries. Australia has a relatively small population compared to any other country the same size and I don’t imagine it uses more hairspray than say, China.

Fact is, most sun damage is done when we’re children. We expose our virgin skin to UV rays and store it in a bank called ‘see you when you’re thirty’. A young, unprotected skin living in Australia is basically a wrinkly, saggy, splodgy complexion waiting to happen.

Growing up in the early 90’s we slathered coconut oil all over ourselves before heading to the beach to sizzle. We knew it was wrong but we were teenagers so of course, we were completely invincible to things like ageing. We were all competitors in a sun worshipping, brown- off.

By the time my younger brother started school in the late 90’s the rules had changed and skin cancer removal was reaching an all time high. The Slip Slop Slap campaign had hit the nation and we all became obsessed with slipping, slopping and slapping sun cream everywhere. Children were no longer left to fend for their sun-vulnerable selves as wide brimmed hats, SPF 30 and long sleeved tops became compulsory in the school playground. I would watch my little brother heading to school each morning, practically mummified in protective clothing.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Australia has become so sun cream dependent that the nation as a whole is suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. Sunscreen is now so effective and so liberally applied that we’re missing out on this very important feel-good vitamin.

Despite its name, vitamin D is not a regular vitamin. It’s actually a steroid hormone obtained primarily through sun exposure -not diet. There are very few foods that actually contain enough therapeutic levels of vitamin D and even fortified foods (like cereal touted as vitamin D rich) doesn’t have enough to support your health needs. Adequate amounts of vitamin D help to create the happy chemical, serotonin and are absolutely essential for calcium metabolism, making it integral to bone health. Healthy neuromuscular, cardiovascular and immune function, respiratory system function and cognitive function are also ruled by vitamin D.

Deficiency has been linked to depression, osteoporosis, achy muscles, cardiovascular diseases and weakened immune systems. Studies have shown that increasing vitamin D can actually reduce the risk of cancer by 30 to 50 percent. Ironically, the vitamin D that we protect our skin from absorbing is a crucial component when it comes to protecting us against skin cancer.

You may wonder where I’m going with all of this….

Well, I would like to sit on the fence when it comes to tanning. I would like to declare myself the Switzerland of SPF: I have one sun-exposed foot on the beach and the other plastered in factor 50. I’m not advocating sun worship or dismissing the very real sun related risks (skin cancer now affects two thirds of the Australian population) but I do like a little bit of colour on my body and I also think that ‘heliophilia’ – sun dependency- is one of the better addictions we could have.

The sun is good for us! It puts a smile on our face, strengthens our bones and on a purely vain level it detracts from our cellulite to makes us look more toned. In the middle of an English winter my legs have about as much appeal as uncooked sausages. With a bit of colour I can brave shorts. Fake tan has its benefits but it doesn’t cover blotchy limbs in quite the same way as the real thing (a bit of both works wonders).

So, just how do we tread the fine line between bronzed bodies and premature ageing? The answer is clever sun preparation and SPF…but not all sun creams carry merit. When it comes to skincare questions I regularly turn to the renowned dermatologist Dr. Rachael Eckell, who knows just about everything there is to know on skin. With a clinic in sun drenched Tobago, Eckell has seen just about every type of sun damage you can imagine-from pigmentation to melanoma. For the record, Dr Eckel has not advocated sunbathing for this article, nor do I imagine any good dermatologist would, however if you do like to lie in the sun, I think there are safer ways to do it, rather than risking the burn…and a run of the mill sun cream just wont cut it.

 Know thy sunscreen and read the label

According to Dr Eckel, sun protection is all about combining two broad categories of sunscreen: organic and inorganic. For a moment, forget what you know about ‘organic’ products being ‘natural’ because when it comes to sunscreen, we’re talking about something altogether different. An ‘organic’ filter is, in this case a ‘chemical’ sunblock (confusing, right?). An ‘inorganic’ filter is the more natural version (bear with me). More often than not, the two don’t blend well together so most sunscreen brands choose one method over another.

Chemical sunscreens (organic) form a thin protective film on the surface of the skin and absorb UV radiation before it penetrates the skin. Key ingredients to look out for are octocrylene, homosalate, avobenzone and Mexoryl. Chemical filters tend to provide better protection against UVA rays, which is ideal for anti-aging, but should be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure to maximize effectiveness. They work by absorbing UV rays before they reach the skin. Some people are concerned that sunscreens, especially chemical-based ones, can be absorbed through the skin and be toxic. It may be that this hype came from a study where scientists had the poor mice bathe in the sunscreen all day and even eat it. This is the one to go for if you’re worried about sunspots. Just don’t eat it.

Inorganic sunscreens on the other hand (these are the more, natural ones otherwise known as ‘physical’ sun blocks) are basically made from crushed rocks: mineral based, insoluble particles such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which scatter and absorb light resulting in UV rays being reflected away. They contain large molecules, which sit on the skin like mirrored plates and don’t deteriorate when exposed to light. This is the sunscreen best for sensitive skin and children but can leave behind a white residue.

The Body Protection

According to Dr Eckel, chemical and physical filters are not enough. We need a blend of inorganic and organic sunscreen; fractionated melanin, antioxidants; DNA repair; barrier maintenance and anti-inflammatory ingredients. You could apply various layers of these products or you could just get Oclipse Sunspray SPF50 by Zo Skin Health £41, which has a 12 hour time release antioxidant complex for all day protection against free radical stress. DNA repair enzyme catalysts and precursors act like a built in ‘first aid kit’ to remedy injured proteins and reduce skin cancer lesions. It has a universal tint and silky matte texture to reduce the appearance of skin imperfections without any white residue. In other words, it makes your body look a little more toned.

The face Protection

On holiday I tend to let my skin enjoy drinking in the vitamin D for a brief period before applying sunscreen. The NHS website advises short daily periods of sun exposure without sunscreen during the summer months (10 to 15 minutes is enough for most lighter-skinned people) Evidence suggests that the most effective time of day for vitamin D production is between 11am and 3pm.

For face protection I’ve been using Institut Esthederm Photo Reverse Anti-Brown Patches Fluid £55, designed for pigment- prone skin, like mine. It works by inhibiting the melanogenesis process to brighten skin, protect cell DNA, prevent photo aging and diminish the look of pre existing sun spots. This is ideal for Asian and mixed-race skin types, hyper-pigmentation and skin that is photosensitive due to medication (oral contraception, antibiotics, etc.). At £55 it may be pricey but by golly it works.

The Tablets

Four weeks pre holiday (and throughout) I take Imedeen Tan Optimizer sun preparation tablets £40 – an antioxidant blend of Vitamin C and E, which ‘work together to help protect skin from UV induced oxidative stress’. The tan optimizer also claims to support your skin’s own sun protection mechanism, and minimise sun-induced skin ageing. At this point I must add in a disclaimer: in all my research and interviews with dermatologists, I’ve never found any solid evidence to back up claims that supplements protect from the sun or enhance colour. What I can say is that I genuinely noticed a significant difference, both in the colour of my skin and the condition. I didn’t burn as easily and was so impressed with the results that I wouldn’t go on holiday again without them. That’s proof enough for me.

The Tan Enhancer

Using an ‘accelerator’ enhances bronzey-ness (as if by magic). Applying Elemis Sunwise Tan Accelerator £40, one to two weeks before sun exposure prepares your skin, helping to prolong your tan whilst softening and moisturising your body. It smells like Tahitian gardenia – yum.

Know thy enemy and avoid sun damage culprits

Never Burn

 The first rule of sunbathing is: never allow yourself to burn. When you burn, cells that protect your skin from damage – and therefore cancer – are wiped out for about two weeks. Its now thought this is the time window of opportunity skin cancer needs.

Avoid Self-tan/Sun cream Blends

These offer protection with a hint of fake tan… and can be your skin’s worst enemy. As your self-tan develops it can mask the look of burning so you’re not alerted to the damage.

Body Oils

Think about what oil does in a hot fry pan. Avoid cooking your skin and stay away from oily textured products.


The sun can react with some perfumes and exacerbate burning. Spray it on your hat or beach towel instead.

Know Your SPF Calculator

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and refers to the theoretical amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. Hopefully one day some clever clogs will invent an SPF Calculator App that sets off an alarm when you need to reapply your sunscreen (I thought of it first, ok?) but until then, use this method:

  • Take the time you would normally burn in the sun without protection, 20 minutes will normally produce redness on a light skinned individual.
  • Multiply this number by the SPF of your product. Example: with an SPF 15 x 20 minutes of sun time = 300 … is how many minutes you can stay in the sun without burning. 300 minutes divided by 1 hour of 60 minutes = 5 hours of sun protection without a sunburn.

On a final note, I recommend Laura Geller Tahitian Bronze Body Frosting. It won’t self-tan and it definitely won’t protect you in the sun but one sweep of this clever, stay-proof bronzer will make your body look bronzed, buff and almost airbrushed. All you need then in a beach and a good book.