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Step inside a tanning salon and you’ll see government-mandated signs calling out health risks: premature aging, skin cancer, and eye damage—just to name a few. Still, a 2014 study by JAMA Dermatology showed 35 percent of adults and 59 percent of university students in the United States have been indoor tanning.
Even if you don’t go regularly, you may have used a tanning bed once or twice to get a base tan before vacation. The assumption is that base tans reduce burns by increasing melanin, the pigment that protects you from UV damage and is responsible for skin tone. But that protection is minimal. “Having a tan does mean that your skin has increased melanin, but the added protection is equivalent to an SPF of 3 to 4,” Nazanin Saedi, M.D. of Thomas Jefferson University, says.
In fact, base tans just cause more harm. “Getting a base tan before you go on vacation is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes before going into a coal mine,” J. Scott Kasteler, M.D., says. “All you’re doing is adding to the damage.”
The takeaway? Embrace your pasty shade and use sunscreen. If you’re sold on the bronzed look, Saedi suggests sticking to spray tans. Above all, remember that there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. “Any kind of tan is the body’s response to the skin being damaged,” Saedi says.