GOODBYE SUNSCREEN: are tanning tablets the future?

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Tanning tablets appear to be a growing trend in suncare. They are currently split into two main groups: the first kind - tan enhancers - which makers claim should be taken before, during and after your holiday as well as using regular topical sun protection, are said to give you a quicker, deeper and longer lasting tan. The second type, skin protectors, are marketed as a way of defending your skin from the damaging effects of the sun - while allowing you to get the tan you want. Here's how they both claim to work:

TAN ENHANCING TABLETS

These most commonly contain an amino acid called tyrosine which helps the body produce melanin - the pigment produced by skin to protect us from the damaging effects of sunlight. It's melanin which makes us look tanned. The theory is that if taken for a period before you go into the sun these pills will allow your body to be better able to produce melanin and so you will tan more easily. Thus, the manufacturers say you get the same amount of tan with less exposure to the sun - so causing less damage to your skin. Another theory is that if you continue to take these tablets once you return from holiday your tan will last longer. This product is often aimed at people with sensitive skin as makers claim it allows users to spend less time in the sun. Dermatologists, however, doubt that this oral approach would have any effect on a tan at all since the tanning system is turned on by other stimuli, not by providing more of what makes us tan. And there is no evidence to suggest that having more tyrosine will make you tan better. Furthermore, there is no shortage of tyrosine in the body anyway, and f you take more tyrosine your body will simply get rid of it. Tan enhancers containing para-aminobenzoic-acid (PABA), meanwhile, are also said to promote the production of melanin and give you a quicker, deeper, longer-lasting tan. It's sometimes used in sunscreen and when applied as a sun cream can prevent sunburn. However, there is no evidence that it affects your tan in any way. An algae called himanthalla elongata has also been used in tan enhancers to promote melanin production. The theory is that because this algae is found on sea shores it contains a natural enzyme to protect it from the sun, which the body can also use to help boost the production of melanin. Makers claim this allows you to tan more quickly and limit your time in the sun, thus doing your body less damage. Again, this product is often aimed at people with sensitive skin as manufacturers claim it allows users to spend less time in the sun. Dermatologists are wary of this claim, feeling that most substances you ingest are digested before they get into the system and make a difference, particularly such a significant one.

SKIN PROTECTING TABLETS

Tablets which claim to protect your skin from the sun often contain beta carotene. This active ingredient is a natural pigment which gives many fruit and vegetables - such as carrots and pumpkins - their colour. When we eat foods containing beta carotene the body converts it into Vitamin A (retinol). Retinol - now widely marketed in anti-wrinkle creams - stimulates skin cell growth and builds collagen, which maintains skin elasticity. German research has indicated that using sun cream plus an oral supplement of beta carotene or mixed carotenoids may help increase sun protection compared with just using sun screen. Some people believe carotenoids, including beta carotene, may protect skin by reflecting ultraviolet light before it has a chance to penetrate deeper layers of the skin. Because it's a natural pigment, in high doses beta carotene may also give skin a yellow or orange tone. Despite this suggestion of tan dermatologists are highly sceptical about beta carotene's ability to protect skin from the sun. Pregnant women are also advised not to take beta carotene as too much vitamin A can harm an unborn baby. The pigment has been tried by the medical profession for many years as a way of protecting skin from the harmful effects of the sun, but it has been largely disappointing. Most dermatologists agree it makes a minimal difference in terms of protection and as a yellow staining pigment it will discolour your skin if you take enough of it. Selenium is an antioxidant nutrient present in fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, nuts - particularly Brazil nuts - and seeds. Antioxidants are thought to neutralise free radicals - the highly reactive molecules that can lead to premature ageing and disease and are created when skin is exposed to the sun. However, antioxidants probably only combat 10% of the damage that the sun does to skin, so even if selenium worked very efficiently it would only offer marginal protection. Whatever you use, the key to sun protection is not to burn: when you burn your skin the cells that protect it from damage - and therefore cancer - are wiped out for about two weeks. And it's now thought that this time is the window of opportunity that skin cancer needs to develop.