Friday, June 27, 2008

Safe Sun-Kissed Glow in a Pill?

Finally, after a long, cold winter, it’s time to throw open the door, get outside, and bask in the friendly rays of the sun . That is, provided you don’t mind doing your basking from behind a virtual razor-wire fence of long-sleeved tops, big floppy hats, spray-on tan, and SPF 30 sunscreen.

Sun protection, though necessary, can be a real buzz kill. So it’s only natural that people would look for shortcuts, and that companies would try to cash in—a quick Internet search turns up hundreds of offers for sure-thing insta-tans and sun protection in convenient once-daily pills. Unfortunately, most of them don’t work and some can have dangerous side effects. Before you plunk down your dough for a get-tan-quick miracle, there are a few things you need to know.

Not-So-Friendly Mr. Sun

Sun damage happens because of ultraviolet radiation that travels to Earth along with those friendly warm beams. Unfortunately, when it hits your body, UV radiation waltzes right past your skin, causing both immediate and long-term damage, including wrinkles, dark spots, and cancer. There are two types of UV and they have different effects—Type A, which penetrates deep into the skin causing wrinkles and premature aging, and Type B, which damages the topmost layer of skin and is usually the culprit behind sunburns and cancer.

UVA rays reach deeply into your skin, damaging elastin and collagen, proteins that help keep your skin stretchy and full-looking. People who have a lot of Type A damage are more likely to get wrinkles at a younger age.

UVB, however, is usually the culprit behind both sunburns and cancer. According to Dr. David Leffell, professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine, Type B causes mutations in a gene called P53, which keeps cells from multiplying too rapidly and turning into tumors. “P53 is like the brake on a car,” Dr. Leffel says. “When P53 is damaged, any cells that begin to proliferate and turn cancerous get out of control and have nothing to stop them.”

Luckily, though, most humans come equipped with melanocytes, cells that produce a pigment called melanin. When skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation, melanin can cluster over the part of cells where DNA is stored, protecting P53 from damage. As they kick into action, skin appears darker. We call it a tan. People whose skin is always dark have melanin working for them 24/7 and, as a result, are better protected against sun damage. But it doesn’t mean they’re immune. “Having more pigment does protect you,” Leffell says. “But you could take anybody and expose them long enough to UV that it would damage their cells.” Everyone, no matter how dark their skin, should wear a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

The Easy Way To Sun Protection?

Here’s where the so-called miracle pills come in. Currently, there are dozens of different brands available and, while none have been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, some are more reliable than others. We’ll focus on the three most-common active ingredients: Carotenoids, Polypodium leucotomos extract, and melanocyte stimulating hormone.

Ingredient: Carotenoids

What Is It?: Pigments derived from plants. They include beta carotene, the thing that gives carrots their orange hue. Beta carotene and another carotenoid called canthaxanthin are often used in sunless tanning pills.

What’s It Do?: Basically a temporary dye for your skin, carotenoids build up in the fatty tissues, where they can change skin color. But the results vary. According to Dr. Robert Brodell, spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology, carotenoid use can lead to orange-colored skin and can also produce a streaky effect, concentrating in palms and feet while leaving other areas pale.

Is It Dangerous?: Yes. For one thing, carotenoid dye isn’t the same as a tan. It doesn’t do anything to protect you from the sun. And, because it isn’t quickly flushed out of your system, you can actually end up “overdosing.” According to the Mayo Clinic, too much carotenoid can cause crystals to form in your retinas, damaging your eyesight.

Bottom Line: Avoid all carotenoid-based sunless tanning pills. You’re better off getting a spray-on tan.

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