Dermatologists agree that the safest way to get a tan is to not tan at all. However, if you don't want to skip the sun, there are plenty of ways you can protect your skin while enjoying time outdoors.
Here's what happens when your skin tans, and how you can achieve that summer glow safely.
Skin tan is your body's way of protecting itself from sun damage
When you're lounging outside, the sun's UV rays penetrate the outer layers of your skin, damaging DNA in the process. As a defense mechanism, skin cells called melanocytes produce melanin, a pigment that protects against further damage. Melanin not only helps absorb UV radiation, but it is also responsible for causing the skin to darken and tan.
"Tanning is a byproduct of DNA damage — so, whenever you have a tan, it means you've hurt your body," says Gabriel Neal, MD, a family physician and clinical associate professor of Primary Care Medicine & Population Health at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.
Fortunately, your damaged skin cells can repair themselves. When you stay out of the sun and subsequently, your tan fades, that's a sign that your skin has healed. However, when you are exposed to the sun for a long period of time, your melanocytes will continue to produce melanin even after you escape its rays. This is why your skin may continue to develop a tan a few days following a bad sunburn or after you have spent all day in the sunshine.
People of all skin colors have around the same amount of melanocytes in their bodies. However, the amount of melanin those melanocytes produce varies from person to person. People with fairer skin produce less melanin than people with darker skin. That's why dark-skinned people are less likely to get a sunburn, because they have higher baseline levels of melanin. That said, people of all skin colors can still develop skin cancer.
There are short-term and long-term effects of tanning
"One of the biggest misconceptions about tanning is that getting a base layer tan will help prevent skin damage for future tanning," says Naiara Barbosa, MD, director of Mohs Surgery and Dermatologic Oncology and assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. In reality, this couldn't be farther from the truth.
The effects of skin damage from tanning are cumulative and increase each time you expose your skin to UV radiation. Barbosa also says that tanning and burning are both significantly harmful to the skin.
Besides a sunburn, short term physical effects of sun exposure include melasma and freckles. "Freckles are one of the earliest indicators of sun damage," Barbosa says. Sun exposure can also trigger symptoms of existing conditions such as rosacea.
Over time, people who tan frequently may damage their skin beyond the point of repair, putting them at a higher risk for skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with one in five Americans developing it before the age of 70.
Skin cancers associated with sun tanning include both non-melanoma cancers — such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma — and melanoma. Melanoma is the rarest, yet deadliest, type of skin cancer because it will spread to other organs if not treated early on.
Another consequence of UV rays is that they break down collagen, which is a protein that provides structure to your skin. When it is degraded, the skin sags and wrinkles. That's why too much sun exposure advances aging, leading to wrinkles, thin skin, easy bruising, and sunspots.
How to tan safely
Most people spend too much time in the sun trying to achieve a perfect tan. There are some pros to sun exposure, such as vitamin D production. However, you only need to spend about 15 minutes in the sun three times a week to get those benefits.
To ensure you're protecting your skin, Neal recommends the following sun safety protocols:
1. Wear sunscreen
The CDC reports that less than 15% of men and 30% of women apply sunscreen regularly, even though it's essential for protecting skin from UV damage.
When it comes to choosing a sunscreen you should use broad-spectrum with a minimum of 30 SPF. For the best protection, reapply every two hours and more frequently if you are sweating or in the water as the sunscreen may dissolve or wash off.
2. Always avoid tanning beds
There are more skin cancer cases related to the use of tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases related to cigarette smoking.
Indoor tanning is more dangerous than outdoor tanning because of the intense UV rays applied directly to a person's body. Outside, there are more physical barriers to protect you from too much UV radiation. Because of this, many states have banned the use of tanning beds for minors.
Exposure to direct UV radiation from tanning beds can also cause harm to your eyes in the form of inflammation, cataracts, or eye cancer.
3. Cover up and seek shade
When outside, wear long-sleeve shirts and wide-brimmed hats for coverage. Also, when spending long hours outside on a sunny day, frequently seek shade not only to avoid sunburn but also heat illness.
Neal also recommends avoiding the sun during peak hours, when UV radiation is at its highest, usually from 11 am to 3 pm, but that may vary slightly depending on your location and time of year.
4. Use self-tanner
The only safe way to tan is to use a self-tanning product or get a spray tan. Most self-tanning products and sprays are safe and FDA approved. These cosmetics do not penetrate the skin to cause harm like UV rays, and instead, just coat the outer layer.
The length of time your fake tan will last varies from product to product, but they usually keep their color for about one week. Exfoliating beforehand will remove dead skin cells to ensure the tan lasts longer.
5. Take a supplement
Polypodium leucotomos, commonly known as Heliocare, is taken as an oral supplement and has been shown to reduce skin damage from sun exposure. Additionally, nicotinamide, a vitamin B3 supplement, may reduce the risk of skin cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking these supplements.
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