YOUR GUIDE TO A... TANTASTIC SUMMER; Whether You Sunbathe, Use Sunbeds or Fake It, Is There Any Such Thing as a Safe Tan? Lifestyle Investigates

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Byline: CLAIRE COLEMAN

DESPITE the facts and the medical establishment's attempts to make the pale English rose as fashionable as the bronzed beauty, millions of us persist in going for gold. It seems to make us feel slimmer, happier and healthier. And while the messages about high factor sun protection and faking it with bronzers and self-tans seem to be having an impact, is slathering our skins in chemicals any safer than roasting in the cancer-causing sun's rays?

Here we assess the safety of today's tanning options.

SUNBATHING WITHOUT PROTECTION

THE GOOD NEWS: In all the furore surrounding the damage that UV rays can do to skin, it's easy to overlook the fact that some UV radiation is actually essential for the human body to function properly.

Not only do the warmth and light of sunshine promote a feeling of wellbeing and stimulate blood circulation, but exposure to sunlight also stimulates production of Vitamin D, essential for the immune system and healthy teeth and bones.

Experts say that between five and 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun (avoiding the midday sun), two to three times a week during the summer is enough to maintain Vitamin D levels.

THE BAD NEWS: We all know the truth; basking in the sunshine without any protection is dangerous. A tan is not a healthy glow, it's a sign that we've damaged the skin and could well be on our way to skin cancer - or at the very least take years off our looks. Have you checked out sun-worshipper Donatella Versace's wrinkles recently?

Sun safety rating: 0/5

SUNSCREENS

THE GOOD NEWS: An effective sunscreen can block up to 97 per cent of the damaging UV rays. Sunscreens come in two different forms - they are either synthetic chemical formulations that work by absorbing UV light, or barrier creams that protect the skin by dispersing the sun's rays.

Sunscreens usually contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

These can't be absorbed by the skin so in the past formed products that were quite thick and greasy and left an unflattering whitish layer - think the sort of war paint that surfers and cricketers wear.

However, the newest formulations (from cosmetics companies such as The Body Shop, Ren and The Organic Pharmacy) use micronised molecules. This means the particles are so small they are invisible to the naked eye, resulting in formulations that go on easily, are effective against both UVA and UVB rays and don't look chalky... so you look fabulous on the beach.

THE BAD NEWS: Although it's not widely discussed, primarily because of fears that it might be seen as irresponsible to question the benefit of sunscreens, there are several experts who believe that far from preventing skin cancer, sunscreens might actually be encouraging it.

They argue that sunscreens trick people into a false sense of security, leading them to spend longer in the sun.

In a 2001 publication, the World Health Organisation said sunscreens shouldn't be used as a means of staying in the sun any longer than you would without sun protection, and that furthermore, there was inadequate evidence to suggest that sunscreens prevented people from getting most types of skin cancer.

For anyone who thought sun cream equalled protection against skin damage, this is shocking news. And although there may be many reasons why this is the case, one of the most significant is the fact that the SPF system measures only how the product protects you from burning.

It doesn't take into consideration whether the product shields you from harmful UVA radiation.

UV radiation is principally made up of two different types of rays: UVA, which are less likely to cause sunburn but penetrate the skin more deeply, and are thought to be responsible for the wrinkles and leathery skin that typify sun-related ageing, as well as certain types of skin cancer, including melanomas. …