Surprisingly, dead people can tan! According to a paper published in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology in 2023, “postmortem tanning”, as it’s called, has & does occur. The paper analyzed 3 instances of bodies that demonstrated sun damage via tan lines that matched their clothing. In the first, a woman, who was found frozen, got thawed out in a laboratory, and handlers found the body had “brown pigment transformation” on exposed areas of the skin while the skin underneath her clothing was unaffected. Then there was a male body that was recovered after having been hit by a car. After having been exposed to the sun for several hours before being located by authorities, that body’s tanned skin was also consistent with the awkward pattern of how their clothes were arranged. And in the 3rd case, a male gunshot victim also presented with tanned skin in an area of his body exposed due to rumpled clothing.

What makes these scenarios interesting (and kind of creepy) is that tanning is basically how a living person’s skin responds to harmful UV rays; it’s a metabolic process that shouldn’t happen in the dead. In two of the cases, though, the bodies were discovered in freezing temperatures, so experts think the necessary metabolic pathways were theoretically preserved somehow. But that doesn’t explain the third body, which was retrieved in a warm summer climate.

It’s important to note that there are other causes of skin color changes in death. Mummification can darken the skin when it becomes dehydrated & brittle, as in dry, hot climates. There’s also a phenomenon known as “bog body formation,” in which corpses left in acidic peat bogs prompt a chemical response in the skin that can lead to browning. But while the subject matter may seem morbid, postmortem tanning could be a key factor in forensic analysis, since it could help determine a time of death & potentially lead to answers in a criminal investigation. Of course, sun exposure can also be a cause of death, too, which is why you should always wear sunscreen.

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