Jessica Cooper
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Is Sun Worshiping A Thing of the Past?

People in western countries have traditionally had a very different relationship with being out in the sun than in people in the east.  In the summertime, the coastlines of the United States, Europe and Anglo-European heritage population countries like Australia, are full of people laying out in the sun in swimsuits enjoying the warm weather, and spending hours laying out in order to acheive that coveted golden tan.  


That behavior has been the norm for more than 50 years.  In western countries being tanned has traditionally been a symbol for athletic, youthful beauty and good health in popular culture.


In more recent years scientists have released a slew of reports showing the harmful effects of UV rays (ultra violet radiation) from the sun, and other sources like tanning beds, which directly contradicts the image of health that has become so popular in modern culture.   Skin damage from UV rays has become a growing concern among doctors and has created greater awareness with the general population.  Sun damage not only prematurely ages skin, causing wrinkles and other aging effects, but also causes cell damage which can lead to skin cancer.   It was often believed that darker skin tones were protecting from the sun's ill effects, however new information has shown that any bronzing of the skin, or prolonged exposure, no matter what skin type someone has, is essentially skin damage, although people with fairer complexions are more susceptible to greater damage.  


Scientists have been able to demonstrate a direct correlation between prolonged UV exposure to the skin and the formation of skin cancer.   UV rays have been shown to have drastic effects especially for fair-skinned people in the creation of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which kills more than 8,000 Americans each year.  Rates are also very high in areas of the world where light skinned populations spend a lot of time in the sun, like Australia for example.  Hot days in Australia are often jokingly referred to as "cancer sun" by Australians.  Paving the way for other nations, Australian's have been quick to adopt a public awareness campaign aimed at advising using more protective measures while being out in the sun in recent years due to the alarming rates of people with skin cancer.  This national awareness has been very successful in reducing rates and changing behaviors so that more people are getting checked by dermatologists sooner to help prevent skin cancer from forming.


With skin cancer rates on the rise around the world and greater emphasis on sun protection by medical professionals there has been some larger cultural shifts and the beginnings of behavior change on a global level.  


So are people still spending time in the sun?  That behavior is not likely to ever change given that spending time outdoors and especially on the beach, or in a pool are a favorite leisure activity for most people in westernized nations and many other countries around the world.  Getting out on the beach or in a pool to play, swim, exercise or just hang out represent much of what we love and value as a global culture.  What is changing though is that people are doing these activities with a greater awareness and with more protective measures in place, like high SPF sunscreens, hats, sunglasses, cover ups, shade covers and more of a mind set of enjoying being outdoors rather than with the goal of tanning.


Those habits are trending to be more in line with what people in Eastern countries like China, Japan, India,Thailand and others have been doing for many generations.  In Asia in particular sun bathing is not something most women would ever do.  Porcelain-pale complexion is the most coveted of all physical traits for Asian women. There is an old Chinese saying that “when a person is fair, most other physical flaws can be overlooked”. 


Along with an emphasis on protecting skin from the sun, it is estimated that more than half of Asian women use some kind of skin whiteners to try and lighten their skin.  Also interesting to note is that when asked a preference, most Asian men have reported that they prefer women that have lighter skin.  The origins of this preference dates back thousands of years, when having fair skin was a symbol of social status.  This situation was created mainly because, in the past, only women of wealthy and powerful families could afford to stay indoors.  The working class, and lower classes spent much of their life working out in the sun and would therefore have darker skin.  As a result of this association with wealth and higher social status, along with cultural images of beauty around fair skin, the idea that pale skin is an ideal has become engrained in most Asian cultures over a long period of time. 


Globalization and the internet has added to a greater understanding and integration of cultural habits in Eastern and Western cultures surrounding beauty and health habits which we are starting to see in overall trends and popular culture.   We are seeing a greater acceptance and love for diversity in humanity and loving all skin types, and also the adaptation of habits more in line with health and science based information shared through different communities around the world via news sources and the internet.


Very recent scientific studies have come out and show that the DNA mutation that occurs when skin is exposed to sunlight continues to mutate long after being out of the sun, and continue to manifest cancer cells in the skin. The effects of sun damage on the skin have been reproduced in lab experiments on skin cells, that found that the cells created a specific kind of DNA damage that was immediate and continued for many hours after exposure.


This study, along with cultural shifts and previous health and beauty information re-enforces the dangers of UVA producing sun lamps using in tanning salons, as well as underscoring the need for people to protect their skin while out in the sun.


It's about time we all love the skin we are in, and all love all the varieties of color our there,  and focus on concerning ourselves with adopting healthier skin habits both in the physical realm as well as in our minds.


For information on the studies in this article, check out the link from Science Mag below:






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