Pregnancy and Sunbathing

Tanning by sun or through sunless measures involves exposure to Ultraviolet radiation (UV) that seriously impacts health of people irrespective of pregnancy from shorter wavelengths of 280 to 315 nm. Even though tanning gives aesthetic beauty, tanning is the body's response to protect itself from this harmful Ultraviolet radiation. Health risks of tanning exposure to UV are widely published and include skin cancer, skin burns, premature skin aging and eye damage.

When pregnant, the women's body is undergoing hormonal changes that impact the skin, and place the pregnant mother and her developing unborn baby at higher risk to tanning.

Skin sensitivity and sun tanning

As a result of the hormonal changes during pregnancy, a woman's skin becomes far more sensitive and prone to burning as a reaction to the sun's rays. In other words, the tanning is heightened because of increased melanocyte-stimulating hormone during pregnancy, and as the pregnant women's body tries to protect her skin from the UV radiation, the reaction to the sun rays is pronounced. Cold sores are also further aggravated by UV rays.

Pregnant women are advised to stay out of the sun where possible and to use the highest factor sunscreen applied every two hours when exposed to sun rays. The heightened skin sensitivity during pregnancy can also cause skin irritations and irregularities, such as darkened marks on the face called chloasma or on the tummy called linea nigra. If either of these skin patches occurs, it is an indicator that the exposure to the sun is causing a heightened skin response. Sunburn and blisters should be totally avoided because these wounds can become infected, spreading infection through the body.

How tanning occurs with Ultraviolet rays

As previously mentioned, tanning is the body's response to protect the skin from Ultraviolet rays. People have different skin types that respond in alternate ways, and some people are willing to spend a lot of money on having the right tan, whether pregnant or not.

The three types of Ultraviolet rays produced by the sun include UVA, UVB and UVC. Only UVA and UVB impact tanning. UVB rays is shorter in wavelength meaning that it only touches the outer skin surface, while UVA is longer and can reach the mid skin layer.

All of us have melanin skin pigment for skin colour, but this pigmentation increases with pregnancy. When UVA reacts with melanin in the skin, an oxidation chemical reaction occurs that causes darkening of skin colour. With UVB, the chemical reaction is different because UVB increases the skin's melanin, altering the cells that then change skin colour by darkening it.

Long term impacts of UV exposure

Women who have exposed themselves to UV radiation a lot prior to becoming pregnant need to protect themselves from further exposure when pregnant because they are more at risk of harm to themselves and their unborn baby.  Long term UV radiation exposure can result in changes to the immune system, and make the skin more susceptible to damage and cancer. Other impacts are eye damage. 

Skin cancer can be deadly if malignant melanoma. Other types include basal-cell carcinoma and squamous-cell carcinoma. As mentioned, pregnant women may be at higher risk of skin cancer if previously exposed and if they have:

  • fair skin
  • blond, red or light brown hair
  • blue, green or gray eyes
  • difficulty tanning
  • burning when exposed to the sun
  • skin irritations or cold sores

Expectant women whose skin is particularly sensitive during pregnancy or if they have open scab-like wounds, need to be careful when exposed to Ultraviolet radiation. Noticeable changes to the skin should be checked by a medical specialist.

  • UV impacts on folic acid
  • Long-term exposure to the sun's Ultraviolet rays can deplete folic acid levels necessary for healthy foetal development. Pregnant mothers are often recommended to take folic acid supplements to increase folic acid levels to protect the developing foetus from neural tube defects in spine and brain causing conditions like spina bifida.

    A pregnant mother who exposes herself to the sun for long periods, especially during the time of conception and initial twelve weeks of pregnancy, can cause damage to the unborn baby's neurological functioning.

    Overheating during sun tanning

    Besides skin sensitivity and concern of product use during pregnancy, the body's overheating during pregnancy can have dangerous effects such as heatstroke, hyperthermia, dehydration, body temperature and blood pressure too high or too low, heat cramps and stress. Overheating during sun tanning can seriously affect the pregnancy mother and the unborn baby.

    Although all people exposed to heat can be impacted by overheating, pregnant mothers are more at risk because of changes to their skin and body temperature. Non-pregnant women have a core body temperature. In pregnant women, this core body temperature rises and is more susceptible to changes. Exposure to UV rays can raise the core temperature of pregnant woman further and can thereby also increase the temperature of the foetus which can result in neurological damage to the unborn baby.

    The risk of overheating or radical changes in temperature is greater in natural sunlight than through artificial sun tanning with sun beds and products. However, these carry notable risks for consideration too, such as skin cancer.

    Tanning and Pregnancy:

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