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As long as you only tan and don’t get sunburned, everything’s totally fine… right? We’ve got some good news and some bad news. Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Your skin sustains sun damage long before that burn makes an appearance.
“Getting outdoors is important for so many reasons both physically and mentally, but tanning should not be one of those things,” states Dr. Keira Barr, dual-board certified dermatologist and author of The Skin Whisperer.
If you’re reading this and thinking “Yeah, I know… but I still want that glow,” that’s where the good news comes in: Self-tanners have got your back (and your arms and legs).
But before we give you the scoop, let’s delve a bit more into the impact of the sun’s rays and how to keep yourself protected when you’re outside.
A quick Google search about tanning throws up all kinds of wacky myths and suggestions — one of which mentions spending shorter bursts of time in the sunshine without sunscreen in order to tan faster. But the fact stands: Whether you tan in 15 minutes or 5 hours, you’re still doing irreversible damage to your skin and putting yourself at risk — even more so if you bask without SPF.
“It’s important to understand that all tanning is a sign of damage to your skin cells,” Barr explains. “Simply put, there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan.”
Skin cell damage not only increases your risk of developing skin cancer but also accelerates wear and tear on your skin, such as wrinkles and sagging. Indeed, up to 90 percent of skin changes often associated with aging are caused by the sun’s UV rays.
When you think about it, it’s somewhat counterintuitive to cause long-term, irreparable damage to your skin for the short-term benefit of a tan.
1. Slather on the sunscreen
No matter your skin tone or how easily you burn, sunscreen is your friend. Research suggests that wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater every day reduces the risk of developing melanoma by up to 30 percent and squamous cell carcinoma by 40 percent.
Dermatologists recommend wearing at least SPF 30. If you’re fair-skinned or in very hot sun, the recommendation increases to SPF 50.
If you need another stat to help you stick to the sunscreen, know that getting five or more bad sunburns in early life doubles your chances of developing melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer).
But it’s important to remember that even the highest SPF can’t block out 100 percent of UV rays — so if you want guaranteed protection, your best bet is to stay out of the sun altogether.
2. Yes, even if you’re in the shade
“While shade can be a protective measure for minimizing sun exposure and subsequent damage, shade alone isn’t enough to offer maximum protection,” explains Barr. “You are still getting sun exposure due to… diffuse UV radiation, which is the light that reaches your skin indirectly after having scattered through water, air, or other atmospheric molecules.”
3. Avoid peak heat
If you’re serious about avoiding sun damage, stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. Luckily, the longer summer days mean there’s still plenty of time on either side of these hours to get outdoors and feel the warmth on your skin.
4. Exfoliate and change angles
If you’re going to be outside for an extended period — maybe playing sports or having a picnic — chances are that sun exposure will be unavoidable. Give your body a good exfoliation before putting on sunscreen, as this will help unclog your pores and slough away dead skin cells, making for a more even tan.
And if you’re sitting out in the sun, change your angle often to help avoid extended and direct exposure on specific body parts (a recipe for burns and dubious tan lines).
“The amount of time someone can spend in the sun before they get a burn is dependent on their skin tone,” says Barr. “Individuals with more fair skin and lighter eye color will be more susceptible to burn than those with darker skin. In dermatology, we characterize skin type and the risk of sunburn and skin cancer using the Fitzpatrick skin scale.”
The Fitzpatrick scale divides skin tone into six levels, ranging from ivory to dark brown. The scale is meant to inform how easily a given skin tone burns in the sun.
Barr also notes that “if you are on a photosensitizing medication or have underlying medical conditions, it can make you more vulnerable to the sun’s rays.”
While it may be interesting to see where you fall on the Fitzpatrick scale, sun exposure causes damage and increases the risk of cancer for all skin tones. So you shouldn’t use the scale to determine whether to use sunscreen.
By now, we’ve established that sitting in the sun for hours is not the best plan of action in a quest for a tanned appearance. So what are your other options? Whatever you do, don’t be taken in by the prospect of baking under a strip of bulbs.
“Tanning beds don’t offer a safer alternative to sunlight,” Barr explains. “Just one tanning bed session before the age of 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 75 percent.”
Tanning beds work exactly the same way as the sun’s rays, beaming out UV light to stimulate melanin production — but their effect is much stronger. Spending just 20 minutes on a sunbed is equivalent to spending several hours in the midday sun without sunscreen.
The active ingredient in these lotions and sprays — dihydroxyacetone (DHA) — reacts and binds with the surface-level cells on your skin, causing them to darken. “Spray tanning offers the ‘glow’ that many people want without the damage from UV exposure,” says Barr.
If you decide to self-tan, it’s important to remember that it won’t shield you from natural sun damage. “Spray tan doesn’t offer sun protection, so you still need to wear sunscreen,” says Barr. “And a fake tan won’t cancel out SPF.”
However, some oils used in sunscreen can cause self-tans to fade faster, so look for an oil-free sunscreen if you want to avoid reapplying earlier than necessary.
Below are some of the highest-rated self-tanners available online.
St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse
Get it via Amazon.
Comes with a tint guide to help you ease into darker shades.
Jergens Natural Glow + Firming Lotion
Get it via Amazon.
This gradual self-tanner also moisturizes. The people have spoken, and they love it.
Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam (Light/Medium or Dark)
Get it via Amazon.
Offers an Australian-style glow that experts and at-home users alike can’t get enough of. Also comes in “ultra-dark”!
Beauty by Earth Self Tanner
Get it via Amazon.
Chemical-free, vegan, cruelty-free, and enriched with aloe vera, coconut oil, and green tea.
When you’re looking in the mirror at your new tan, do you ever take a moment to consider exactly what’s happened to your skin to bring about this change?
It’s actually pretty straightforward: When the sun’s UV rays hit your skin, this encourages your body to produce more melanin (a natural pigment) to try to protect against damage. This increase in melanin causes your skin to change color and acts as an indicator of the damage that has occurred.
The natural level of melanin a person has is reflected in their skin color. Fair-skinned people produce less melanin, while those with darker skin produce more — but that doesn’t mean people with a darker tone should assume they’re less susceptible to sun damage.
While melanoma rates are significantly higher in people with lighter skin, research shows that people of color are more likely to be misdiagnosed or diagnosed late, leading to a higher death rate from skin cancer.
Again for the people in the back: SPF is important across the board.
Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, travel, food, health, and fitness.