I despise Coco Chanel. Weird, right? I have a perfectly sound reason for my animosity. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel went on a cruise near the French Riviera and accidentally got sunburned. Her resulting tan skin became an instant trend. This little incident is a major reason I will never be trendy. For those of you who do not know me, I’m a redhead. And being a redhead means no tan. Ever.
Growing up as a redhead, or “a ginger,” was no easy task, especially when it came to things like pool parties or hangouts on the beach. Every time I donned a bathing suit, the comments about my fair — or nearly invisible — skin were relentless. So why is it that all you beautiful Malibu-ites get to enjoy a perfectly tanned complexion, while my pale-skinned compatriots and I must sit out the swimming and beach volleyball to hide under hats, umbrellas and SPF 100 sunscreen? It has to do with something called melanin.
Melanin is a brown pigment present in all skin, with the exception of people with conditions like albinism, and its job is to reduce the harmful effects of UV light. When UV light hits the pigment, the light is absorbed and mostly transmitted harmlessly as heat. This is absolutely crucial to human health because UV light is damaging to DNA, and if DNA is damaged in cells, those cells can become cancerous. So more melanin is good, right?
Unfortunately, melanin production and protection from sunlight is much more complex than that. It turns out that a “tan” is more of a protective response than a healthy one. When you get sick, your body will raise its temperature to kill the virus and stop it from spreading and hurting your body. Similarly, when you expose your skin to too much sunlight, the upper layers of your skin fill with melanin to keep any more sun from damaging it. In other words, when you damage your skin by tanning, it responds by filling with melanin to keep you from damaging it again.
Equally important is the location of melanin in our skin. Our skin has layers, and pigments can be found in the bottommost layers or in layers that are closer to the surface of the skin that we see. When we tan, melanin will move from the bottommost layers of our skin to the upper ones, and this is when we see the brown color that we call a “tan.” When we damage our skin with UV light, the pigment will move to upper layers to absorb any more light and prevent DNA damage and further harm.
So, fellow gingers and fair-skinned friends, this is unfortunate for us because we naturally have less of the protective pigment that keeps our DNA from getting damaged. But by no means does that imply that having naturally darker skin means no care must be taken in the sun.
Before you go out tanning again, please think about your poor skin cells that think you are insane for torturing them. They can see past your folly. So stop picking on us poor, pale, ginger souls, and let us all enjoy the skin tone God blessed us with.