It’s a question skincare experts often get asked: is there a safe way to tan?
After all, we all know now that lying baking in the sun is terrible for our skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer as well as premature ageing and pigmentation.
On the other hand, a bronzed glow is still top of the wishlist for many of us come summer, which sometimes makes it difficult to resist the allure of a sneaky sunbathing session.
So, is there a safe way to tan? Dr Unnati Desai, National Lead GP at Nuffield Health, explains that while sun exposure can have a few health benefits, such as increasing vitamin D levels and improving mental health, ‘tanned skin is in fact a sign that the skin has been exposed to too much ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Tanning is the body’s way of trying to protect the genetic material in our skin cells from this radiation.’
Melanin is a natural pigment in our skin cells that gives skin its tanned appearance. It offers protection from UV-induced damage by providing a shielding effect that scatters UVR. It also provides an absorbent layer that decreases penetration of UVR into the deeper layers of the skin. Basically, it’s a protection mechanism, but one we should avoid stimulating due to the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.
What you need to know about ultraviolet radiation
There are three types of UVR that differ in their ability to penetrate the skin and the extent in which they cause biological changes, says Dr Desai:
UVA causes skin ageing.
It penetrates deep into the skin layers, resulting in the immediate tanning effect as well as premature ageing. This is due to damage to the elastin and collagen in the skin
UVB causes skin burning
It penetrates to the superficial skin layers only, resulting in redness and delayed tanning/burning. UVB radiation is strongest in the summer months (April-October) and between the hours of 11:00-15:00
UVC is the strongest
…and most harmful, but it cannot penetrate the ozone layer to reach the earth’s surface.
Which of these causes skin cancer?
Damage to skin cellular DNA results in the loss of control in how and when a cell grows and divides, increasing the chances of skin cancers. Children’s skin is more susceptible to damage, says Dr Desai.
UVB significantly promotes the development of skin cancers. However, studies have shown that UVA also enhances their development. A single sunburn or use of a tanning bed increases the risk of developing skin cancer exponentially. Excessive UVR exposure causes approximately 90% of all skin cancers. This means that they are almost entirely preventable.
How to stay safe in the sun
When exposed to the sun, there are a few recommendations to keep yourself as safe as possible.
- Use a high factor, broad spectrum sunscreen
SPF 30–50 protects from UVB and a star rating of 4-5 protects from UVA. Apply from head to toe and don’t forget your lips.
- Apply sunscreen often and enough
You should apply generous amounts of sunscreen all over the body every two hours. This should be reapplied after sweating or swimming — there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen.
- Avoid the midday sun
Stay out of the sun between 11:00–15:00 (10:00–16:00 near the equator) when the UV rays are at their peak. Early morning or late evening sun exposure is safer.
- Wear loose clothing
You should wear loose fitting clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible. This includes long sleeved tops, trousers, sarongs and long skirts. Avoid v-necks that expose the decolletage.
- Wear a hat
Wide brimmed hats are best to protect the scalp, face, neck and ears
- Put on sunglasses
Excess sun exposure can increase the risk of cataracts forming. Sunglasses with a filtered lenses and wrap around style provide the best protection for your eyes.
- Keep moving
Ensure that no area of your skin has prolonged exposure to the sun
- Never use tanning beds
Tanning beds emit two–five times more UVA radiation than the sun. Just a few minutes under a tanning bed can cause the same amount of skin damage as spending several hours in the midday sun with no sunscreen.
So how can you tan safely?
Given the above, it’s clear that the only safe way to get a tan is to use fake tan. Luckily, the self-tan market has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with the tanning lotions and mousses now joined by a range of products such as tanning drops (which you add to other skincare products) and new sweat-resistant formulas. Read our Beauty Director Edwina Ings-Chambers guide to self-tanning here.