Was human skin always afraid of the sun?

Figurative image of a woman wearing a hat to protect herself from the sun. —Unsplash

An anthropologist who consults for L’Oréal and has received funding from several international organizations said the relationship between humans and the sun has evolved over time.

Today we have a love-hate relationship with the sun. Humans are obsessed with protecting their skins with sun creams but the anthropologist Nina G Jablonski The conversation says it wasn’t always like that.

Aeons ago, our bodies “opposed the sun”. Humans in ancient times spent most of their day under the giant star often naked. Homo sapien skin adapted to all the conditions it encountered.

Our ancestors built shelters in caves and took refuge in caves, but most of the day the skin was exposed to the sun.

The skin, he says, reacts to sun exposure. The outer layer or epidermis becomes thicker and darker. The pigment that makes the darker skin, eumelanin, is protective in nature and absorbs visible light and harmful ultraviolet rays.

The amount of eumelanin depends on people’s genetics. Jablonski said his research showed people’s skin in prehistoric times adapted to local conditions.

Naturally, those who lived around the equator in strong UV light produced more eumelanin and had “highly tannable skin.”

Those who lived in the northern regions developed lighter skin and an inability to produce the protective pigment.

Regardless, even fair-skinned people would rarely experience “painful sunburn”, as surprise exposure to the sun was rare in itself. The skin would naturally become thicker with more and more exposure.

However, Jablonski clarified that the individuals had damaged skin. 21st century dermatologists would be horrified to see the “leathery and wrinkled look” of our ancestors’ skin.

The relationship with the sun changed dramatically when homo sapiens began permanent settlements. From a nomadic life, of hunting and gathering, we moved on to agriculture and the construction of permanent houses.

More and more time was spent indoors. Over time, around 3000 BCE, the sun protection has become an industry. People started producing hats, umbrellas and the like to avoid the discomfort caused by sun exposure.

Fast forward to today, human skin almost hates the sun. There are luxury protective items. Today, due to indoor living, even dark-skinned people need protection as the skin is susceptible to damage regardless.

While a tan used to be a sign of outdoor activity and hard work, today Jablonski says there’s no such thing as a “healthy tan.” It’s just a sign of damage.

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