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  • Writer's pictureDr Dara Seebaran Suite

Did Coco Chanel Give Us Cancer?

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

In the 1920's, while on vacation in the French Riviera, Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburnt. An accident that changed the course of fashion history. When she arrived in Paris, her fans fell in love with her new tanned appearance and began to seek out a darker skin tone themselves.

The suntan, previously associated with peasants and outdoor workers, was now deemed fashionable, luxurious and coveted. To emulate Coco Chanel, European women stopped using their whitening make-up, forgot their umbrellas and hats, stepped out from under the shade and consciously tried to tan.

Fast forward several decades to the rise of colour film, commercial air travel and disposable income and we have the " Holiday in the Sun". Over 50% of Britons now flock to the Mediterranean with the sole purpose of getting a good tan. Those who can't afford it, or want a year round tan, frequent tanning salons.

What's in a Tan?

Melanin is a natural pigment produced in the skin. It is responsible for skin colour and its main function is to protect the skin by absorbing UV radiation.

When UV radiation hits the skin, two things happen. UVA radiation, which forms over 90% of the radiation that gets past the ozone layer, oxidizes melanin that is already present in our skin. This oxidation leads to a rapid darkening of skin colour. Importantly, UVA doesn't cause any more melanin to be produced, so the tan that forms doesn't protect the skin from more sunburn.

When UVB radiation hits the skin, direct damage to DNA happens. It is this photodamage that triggers the production of more melanin. This results in delayed tanning, a tan that lasts for weeks to months. This tan protects from further sun damage. It's important to note that to get a good tan, you actually need DNA damage. Let that sink in.

Why Can't I Tan?

Humans make two types of melanin, a reddish pigment called pheomelanin and a darker pigment called eumelanin. The amount of each type of melanin we produce determines our skin colour, and our response to sunlight. Red haired people typically produce pheomelanin but very little eumelanin. They find it very difficult to get a tan and are more susceptible to burning. At the other extreme, very dark people produce a lot of eumelanin, tan very easily and rarely burn. Doctors classify the risk for skin cancer based on the ability to tan described in the Fitzpatrick scale. Have a look and see where you fit in!

Can a Tan Ever Be A Good Thing?

Moderate exposure to UV radiation produces Vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D is necessary for bone health and in its absence, bones become weak and brittle manifesting in a disease called ricketts.

Excessive exposure to the sun releases large amounts of free radicals, which cause DNA damage and weaken collagen. Skin wrinkles develop and collections of melanin deposits form: sunspots. These free radicals can even impair the immune system. This man worked as a trucker for 29 years, and his face shows in graphic detail, the effects of sun exposure on the left side (driving side) of his face.

However the worst effect of overexposure to UV radiation is skin cancer.

So did Coco Chanel Give Us Skin Cancer?

Coco Chanel contributed to the popularity of the tan in the 20th century. In the UK, the craze for a darker hue has led to a fourfold increase in the rates of malignant melanoma in the past 30 years. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in people aged 15-34 and people who use tanning beds before 30, are 75% more likely to develop melanoma. Tanning beds are now classified in the highest cancer risk category, along with eating bacon and cigarette smoking.

Obviously Coco did not give anyone cancer, but she stands as an example of the power and sometimes danger of beauty trends.

The Future of the Tan?

Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, have developed a drug which leads to a tan without UV exposure. The medication, when tested on mice, caused them to produce more melanin and appear darker. The drug also works when rubbed directly onto skin. Dermatologists are hailing this as the future in the fight against skin cancer and a game changer in the beauty industry.

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