Why Do Scandinavians Tan So Well?

Queries on online forums and letters to newspaper science editors suggest that many northern Europeans believe Scandinavians tan exceptionally well [1].

But is this based on fact? And what explains such different reactions to sunlight exposure among the various European populations?

Scandinavians are said to tan so well because of their unique genes, seasonal variations in exposure to ultraviolet light, and high-fish diets.

However, the heterogeneity of modern European gene pools and the varied skin tones of other far-northern populations raise doubts about the validity of these claims.

This article will explain why many people believe Scandinavians tan well.

It will also show why this impression may be entirely misplaced or so highly localized as to be nearly meaningless.

Also, see Why Do Scandinavians Like Licorice? to learn more.

Common Explanations for Why Scandinavians Tan Well

The main explanations forwarded by those who believe Scandinavians tans better are:

  • The unique genetic inheritance of most Scandinavians: The earliest Scandinavians were dark-skinned hunter-gatherers. By contrast, the ancestors of most Europeans were light-skinned farmers. This genetic difference explains why ethnic Scandinavian skin does not burn as much as other European people’s [2].
  • Variable exposure to UV light: The ozone layer is thinner near the poles, allowing more ultraviolet light to enter the earth’s atmosphere in the summer months. Winters, on the other hand, see very little daylight. So Scandinavian skin has to tan well in the summer months to protect Scandinavians from skin damage.
  • A diet high in fish: Historically, Scandinavians have always had a fish-heavy diet. The vitamin D Scandinavians get from their high-fish diet helps them produce melanin, which allows their skin to darken without burning. 

While these explanations sound plausible, there is insufficient evidence to make them wholly convincing. Numerous anomalies turn up when they are tested against other evidence.

The following section addresses some of these ambiguities. 

Do Scandinavians Really Tan Better Than Other People? 

Experts have raised several questions about the validity of the claim that Scandinavians tan better than other Europeans.

It is also difficult to scientifically evaluate the claim, as it is based on subjective perceptions that do not always translate easily into objective data.

Each of the earlier explanations can be countered with various facts.

Does the Scandinavian Genetic Inheritance Account for Better Tans?

Scandinavia has one of the most ethnically homogenous populations in the world, only outdone by a handful of countries like Japan and Korea [3].

Generally speaking, countries closer to the equator are more genetically heterogenous than those further from it. 

However, populations today are still mixed enough that many people in northern Europe and North America have significant percentages of Scandinavian ancestry.

Clear evidence from genetic studies comparing the DNAs of different population groups for differences that might lead to unique tanning behavior is unavailable.

Does Exposure To Seasonally Varying UV Light Account for Better Tans?

Comparing the skin tones of ethnic Scandinavians with other far-northern peoples does not help clarify the matter. 

The Sami people, who share homelands with ethnic Scandinavians, are as light-skinned as ethnic Scandinavians [4].

At the same time, Inuits live just as close to the poles and are dark-skinned [5]. 

These differences in skin pigmentation among different groups living at similarly high latitudes suggest that a host of factors other than seasonal UV exposure play a role in explaining divergent tanning behavior. 

Does a High Fish Diet Explain Better Tans?

Closeness to the poles is also a strong indicator of lighter skin tones among indigenous populations [6].

So some experts believe that the darker skin of Inuits is due to more significant quantities of vitamin D obtained from a high-fish diet. 

Thus, historically high fish consumption offers one of the more robust defenses for the perception that Scandinavians tan better.

Many people also believe that diets play a role in improved tanning [7].  

However, a comprehensive study establishing the link between high fish diets and better tanning is not available. 

Explaining the Perception That Scandinavians Tan Better

So, why is the belief that Scandinavians tan better so widespread if there is no definitive information that supports the claim? 

Scandinavian Skin Tans Better Relative To Celtic Skin

According to Mark Birch-Machin, a molecular dermatologist at the University of Newcastle, Celtic phenotypes burn without ever tanning.

People with a predominantly Celtic genetic inheritance may turn red as their skin gets inflamed, without their skin ever darkening. 

From some perspectives, skin that tans appear healthier and more aesthetically pleasing.

However, modern European populations are usually so mixed that this is only likely to be true for an inconsequentially small percentage of the European population.

James Scott, a genetics and genomics researcher at Imperial College, London, believes that, if anything, British people should tan more gently than their northern neighbors.

That’s because Scandinavians have among the lowest levels of melanin of any population in the world [8].

The only other explanation is that Scandinavians have a unique genetic disposition to develop more melanin under solar exposure. However, there is no proof of this.

The Belief That Scandinavian Skin Tans Better May Be a Perceptual Error

National populations are large groups, often more diverse than imagined.

However, the ubiquitous presence of mass media means that most people form their opinions based on a narrower set of influences. 

People in the rest of Europe may form their opinions about Scandinavians from images of the most famous Scandinavians they see in the media.

Many of these people are disproportionately wealthy or work in industries that prioritize maintaining an appealing appearance. They may dedicate more time and attention to tanning or having artificial tans.

Making a general assumption based on this small sample would be inaccurate but understandable. Nevertheless, it’s still an observer artifact – a perceptual error based on improperly reading a situation.

The Dangers To Skin Health From Tanning

Regardless of how well or poorly skin tans, tanning always damages the skin. In fact, it’s damaging not just to the skin but to DNA as well.

The higher the level of UV radiation the skin is exposed to, the faster it burns. Worse still, damage begins even before the skin starts to burn.

Over a lifetime of constant exposure, in the worst cases, tanning can even lead to skin cancer.

The lighter the skin, the faster it burns. 

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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