Photo: 'Tan' by Evil Erin, Flickr Photostream

No matter how bad our summer may be, it seems that there is always room for at least one more scare story along the lines of ‘we are getting too much/too little sunshine for our health’.  The latest twist on this saga was particularly cruel for those people who prefer a tanned rather than pale skin tone.  After years of being advised to avoid the sun, and that a fake tan from the bottle may be safer than a natural tan, newspaper readers were greeted with headlines such as ‘Fake tans timebomb: Chemicals can cause cancer and birth defects’ (Sun on Sunday, 22 July 2012) and ‘Women using fake tan ‘risk infertility’’ (Telegraph, 23 July 2012).  Of course, both articles illustrated this ‘serious story’ with images of bikini clad women.  The Telegraph even had pictures of women in bikinis decorated with the Scottish Saltire; because if there is one thing that your average Telegraph reader knows about Scottish women it’s that they do love their tans (fake or otherwise).

The saga of sunshine being good/bad for your health has a fairly long pedigree and even in the recent past there have been twists and turns.  In the 1990s, after epidemiologists warned of a looming skin cancer epidemic, we were told that all sun exposure was bad and that a safe tan was a contradiction in terms.  The famous slip (on a shirt), slop (on the sunscreen), slap (on a hat) and seek (shade), originating in 1980s in Australia, took hold and we all began fearing the sun like melatonin deprived vampires.  As we entered a new century a different group of scientists began to suspect that avid sun avoidance may be causing widespread Vitamin D deficiency and that this also has bad consequences.   Low levels of Vitamin D being associated (sometimes quite inconclusively) with heart disease, increased levels of certain cancers, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

So in 2010, a group of seven British health organisations issued a “consensus statement” of their unified views on what people should be doing in the sun. Unfortunately, anyone concerned about their own lack of vitamin D, their risk of skin cancer, or just wanting to get a nice tan would be disappointed reading the consensus statement – it reads like something put together by seven committees (which it was). We are told: that everyone needs Vitamin D, which is ‘essential for good bone health’, but the evidence for all other benefits, while being mentioned, is ‘inconclusive’; that sunshine is the main source of Vitamin D ‘but excessive sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancer’; and that it is ‘impractical to offer a one-size-fits-all recommendation’ for levels of sun exposure. They do however suggest that going outside regularly for a few minutes at midday without sunscreen should be enough but that in winter this might need to be increased to 13 minutes and that for some people vitamin supplements may be a good idea (but unfortunately there is little consensus about the required level of intake).

All this comes after over a century of flip-flopping over the benefits/evils of sunlight.  In the nineteenth century sunlight was thought to lead to a range of health problems including ‘Tropical Neurasthenia’ and the degeneration of ‘Aryans’.  In the first decades of the twentieth century sunlight exposure was promoted as a therapy that could help combat tuberculosis. Later clinicians, eugenicists and advocates of social hygiene encouraged the masses to get out in the sun as a ‘free tonic’ that may combat the ills caused by poverty and poor diets without any redistribution of wealth.

Anyone who has ever been to the doctors with a suspect mole will know that skin cancer is no joke.  But perhaps it is time to also admit that our holiday breaks and leisure activities are structured around good weather that by definition includes sunshine.  It is also perhaps time to accept that few, apart from maybe Zooey Deschanel and Robert Pattinson, can pull off the pale is interesting look without also appearing wan and sickly.