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Some rays of hope for the natural tan

Ever since Brigitte Bardot's portrayal of a young girl who loves nude sunbathing in the 1956 blockbuster And God Created Woman, bronzed skin has stood for sexual allure and beauty, as well as good health.

But while we love to get a tan, there's huge pressure to apply high-factor sunscreen -- or to get the bronzing without the sun with a fake tan.

Beneath this apparent orthodoxy, there's an acrimonious debate between those who insist sunshine is a toxic force against which we need constant protection and those who accuse big business of promoting "sun phobia" for commercial reasons, thus putting us at risk of a vitamin deficiency which causes rickets.

Who should we believe? Here's what the experts say on the pros and cons of tanning.

Sunbathing

> How it works

Melanin in the skin absorbs UV radiation in sunlight, thereby changing the colour and eventually the thickness of the skin. Tanning occurs when the skin is exposed to sunlight gradually. Sudden exposure of previously protected skin to strong UV rays causes burning, quickly turning a "milk bottle" into a "lobster".

> Worst press

Bardot's face in later life.

> Health benefits

Some clinicians insist there is no such thing as a safe suntan and that all sun exposure causes skin cancer as well as ageing and wrinkles.

However, a series of studies have discovered widespread vitamin D deficiency in cloudy Britain. And a growing number of experts say that safe sunbathing has unparalleled health benefits by boosting levels of vitamin D, "the sunshine vitamin", which is formed when bare skin is exposed to sunlight.

As well as helping to build a robust immune system and strong bones, trials suggest it fights off some cancers and depression.

"A sunny holiday with plenty of opportunity for safe and careful sunbathing is excellent for everyone's health -- including those with pale skins -- provided they are careful," says Oliver Gillie, health campaigner and author of Sunlight Robbery. "The evidence suggests that the best approach is to enjoy regular sunshine throughout the year, so that you don't suddenly expose your body to UV rays."

Cancer specialist Professor Tim Oliver, consultant oncologist at Barts and the London Hospital, says: "The anti-sun skin cancer message and the trend for young people to play indoors, rather than running around outside, is creating the potential for a health crisis. We are simply not getting enough sunlight to make the vitamin D we need to stay healthy."

> Health risks:

Sunburn is almost universally regarded as a major risk for skin cancer. "You shouldn't throw yourself at a beach once a year and let yourself burn," says Professor Oliver. "The skin cancer message is right: melanomas or tumours on the skin are found on people who have burnt in the sun, particularly when young."

Sunbeds

> How they work

UV tanning equipment mimics the spectrum of light from sunshine.

"Around 90pc mimic UVB and UVA rays in the summer sun, with new skin-sensor technology introduced in larger chains, providing tailored UV balance, based on measurements of skin type and tone and melanin levels," says Adam Mooney, chief executive of The Tanning Shop.

> Worst press

Donna Ballantyne, from Bothwell, Lanarkshire, admitted using sunbeds until she "burnt my back and shoulders to the point they were sore". She suffered 19 melanomas over 10 years and died at the age of just 39 in June of this year.

> Health benefits

Sunbeds are now much better regulated, with the introduction of maximum "irradiance level", roughly that of the midday sun in the Mediterranean. Within this safe context, there is substantial evidence that moderate use of sunbeds has the same health benefits as exposure to sunshine.

A recent study showed that sunbed users have the highest vitamin D levels of any group in Canada.

"During the winter months, many of us may benefit from the UV lamps used in sunbeds," says Professor Oliver. "Because the whole body is usually exposed, a single five to 10-minute session once every six weeks should be sufficient." >Health risks:

Fears that unsupervised coin-operated sunbed shops have provoked life-threatening "tanorexia" in teenagers led to a UK nationwide ban on under-18s in April.

Fake tans

>How they work

Fake-tan products today contain moisturiser, skin toners, anti-ageing agents and sun protection factor and are available as creams, lotions, sprays, mousses and liquids. But the market still depends on DHA, the protein that turns apples brown when cut in half.

> Worst press

Most female celebrities have been judged and found guilty of orange fake-tan disasters -- including, in the past 12 months, Cheryl Cole, Patsy Kensit and Kelly Brook.

> Health benefits

Today, it's relatively simple to get a healthy streak-free, sun-kissed look. "Use a gradual tan if you have a light skin tone, a spray or mousse for a medium skin tone and a bronzing lotion for dark skin -- and take a picture of yourself with the flash on to make sure the colour is just right," says James Read, celebrity spray-tanner to Lady Gaga.

> Health risks:

None known.


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