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The Upside of Tanning

Suntanning may get a bad rap, but it's also nature's best source of vitamin D. That, and other reasons why soaking up the rays isn't all bad.

"The Upside of..." is a new series that uncovers surprising benefits of things universally panned for being unhealthy and/or bad for the environment. Basically, it makes you feel a little less guilty about your vices.

Palefaces and tanning addicts! I bring you glad tidings. Tanning and sun exposure are less nefarious than we all previously thought. True, soaking up the rays can be unhealthy and potentially fatal. But before you hide under that beach umbrella all summer, consider the following ways sun worship may actually benefit you:

Sun exposure is the most effective way to get vitamin D. Vitamin D’s benefits go beyond strong bones; every tissue in the body, from brain to heart, muscles and immune system, has vitamin D receptors. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to cancers of the colon, breast and prostate, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and other maladies. And most sun-phobic Americans—hiding behind our floppy hats and zinc oxide-smeared noses—are perpetually, and sorely, lacking in vitamin D.

You can meet some of your daily vitamin D requirement through nutritional supplements and diet, like wild-caught oily fishes and fortified milk. But your best bet is simply to manufacture your own vitamin D through exposure to UVB rays. The Harvard School of Public Health, Cancer Research UK and Australian health authorities now recommend “little and frequent” sun exposure, wearing no UVB-blocking sunscreen to inhibit your body’s natural vitamin D production.

There's a chemical found in most sunscreens that's a proven carcinogen. This just in from researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Oxybenzone, an ingredient in sunscreen that blocks ultraviolet light, can imitate the effects of estrogen in the body, stimulating cancer cells to grow. Of course, you’d need to ingest vatfuls of the stuff before any adverse effects kick in, so don't go blazing around the house dumping your sunscreen in the trash just yet.

Sunlight beats back seasonal affective disorder in winter. Having lived in Berlin for several cruel winters, I can affirm all the folk remedies northern Europeans use to buck up in the dimly lit winters: popping cod liver oil capsules, walking outdoors during the peak sunlit hours, and visiting tanning beds for very short doses of UV light. Happily, the Mayo Clinic backs all these techniques; they also suggest taking St. John’s Wort, melatonin, SAMe and omega-3 fatty acids. But of all of these, exposing yourself to real sunlight, unfiltered through windowpanes, is undoubtedly best.

The tan is still a good look. Self-tanners may be safe, but the carroty-orange effect doesn’t hold a candle—or a lightbox—to the après-soleil allure of Coco Chanel, who first popularized the sun-kissed look in the 1920s after she accidentally got a sunburn. Why visually label yourself a grind who fears the outdoors?

As a blond with the dangerously alabaster skin to match, not to mention a family history of skin cancers, I’m watching my step outdoors and urge you to do the same. But the sun can be salubrious in small doses. Bottom line? Don’t be a rabid tanner–or a rabid absolutist–about tanning. Or about anything, really.

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