It’s that time of year again: Winter is on its way out, and sunshine and warmth are returning to most of the country.
With spring break just around the corner, teenagers and adults alike are starting to think about vacations and achieving that “healthy” glow. But is there really anything healthy about glowing from sun exposure?
We spoke to three board-certified dermatologists to find out if there’s any truth to these seven common myths about tanning.
Plenty of people think they need to get a base tan to avoid getting a sunburn on vacation, but this is a mistake according to Dr. Madeliene Gainers of Anne Arundel Dermatology in Florida.
“A tan in and of itself is evidence of skin damage,” she told Healthline. “The skin appears darker because it redistributes melanin in an effort to protect itself.”
But it’s not just skin damage that occurs.
“With repeated exposure, not only will the skin darken, it will also thicken and become leathery,” Gainers said.
So, that “healthy” tan you‘re going for today could lead to irreversible skin damage in the future.
If you live in a northern state where sun tends to be limited in the winter months, you’ve probably heard it’s a good idea to use a tanning bed to keep your vitamin D levels where they need to be.
But that’s simply not so, according to Gainers.
“There’s no reason to damage the skin, putting oneself at risk for skin cancer as well as accelerated aging, to get vitamin D. Achieving adequate vitamin D levels can be accomplished through proper diet and supplementation without harming the skin,” she said.
Fair-skinned people tend to realize it’s best for them to avoid sun exposure. But it’s a common myth that those with darker skin don’t need to take the same precaution.
Dr. Karyn Grossman of Grossman Dermatology in Santa Monica and New York City agreed that any tan at all indicates damage to the genetic code of your skin.
“It’s this damage that ultimately leads to skin cancer and aging,” she said. “And this applies to skin of all colors. Having darker-toned skin or skin that tans easily doesn’t mean it’s OK to tan. You’re still damaging your skin.”
“Although the extra melanin in darker skin offers some protection, it doesn’t block all the ultraviolet (UV) radiation,” said Dr. Michael Lin, founder of Dr. Lin Skincare Institute.
“Darker-skinned people can still develop skin cancer and experience photoaging (premature aging of the skin caused by repeated sun exposure).”
We get it: You feel like you look better with a tan. But you don’t need to put your skin at risk in order to achieve those results.
“Some people believe you have to get a true suntan to have tan skin,” Gainers said, noting it isn’t true. “Nowadays there are several effective, natural-appearing sunless tanners and bronzers. There’s no reason to damage your skin if you want the look of having a tan.”
There are two different types of UV rays: UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays tend to get the bad rap, as they are associated most with sunburns and skin cancer development. But that doesn’t mean UVA rays are safe.
“UVA rays are more related to photoaging, such as wrinkling and irregular texture,” Lin explained. “UVB rays are linked to skin cancer. Neither are desirable.”
A lot of people think that because tanning beds rely more on UVA rays they’re safer than tanning outdoors. But these rays can actually be more damaging to skin DNA, especially with prolonged exposure. And that damage is ultimately what can lead to skin cancer.
“According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 10 or more uses of a tanning bed will increase the risk of melanoma by 34 percent,” Gainers said.
“And people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk by 75 percent. In the United States, 6,200 cases of melanoma each year are linked to indoor tanning.”
In fact, tanning beds can be so dangerous that they’re illegal in some countries. And there’s a movement to have them banned completely in the United States.
Many people have known at least one person who’s had a skin cancer scare. And in many cases, they may have walked away with nothing more than a small scar. But it’s important to know just how deadly skin cancer can be.
“One in five Americans across all ethnicities will get skin cancer,” Grossman said. And not all of those people will survive. “One person dies from skin cancer every hour in the United States.”
If these statistics seem sobering, it’s because skin cancer really is an epidemic. Grossman told Healthline there are more skin cancers diagnosed in one year in the United States than all other cancers combined over a three-year period.
“Skin cancer is an important personal and public health issue.”
In case it wasn’t already clear, any tan whatsoever can set you up for future skin problems.
“Acute sunburns are painful and and may increase the risk of melanoma,” Lin said. “But tanning cancause photoaging and predispose you to skin cancer.”
The problem is that most people ignore those future risks because they can’t see them today.
“I think the most important thing to understand is that any tan at all is unhealthy for your skin. There is no health reason ever to get a tan. If you really want to look tan, use self-tanning creams,” Grossman said.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 every single day. But Grossman warns that you may need a higher SPF if you aren’t achieving enough coverage to begin with.
“Many people tend to not apply enough sunscreen to get the SPF on the label,” she explained.
“When I show people what 1 ounce of product is, which is what should cover you in a tank top and shorts or bathing suit, they always laugh and say they probably use less than that for an entire day outside.”
For that reason, she suggests people use SPF 50 every day, applying it every one to two hours when outside.
“And if you get wet, you should reapply immediately. Remember, there’s no ‘waterproof’ sunblock, there’s only water-resistant sunblock that still needs to be reapplied once your skin has gotten wet,” Grossman said.
Gainers had a few additional recommendations for ensuring ultimate skin protection:
- Wear sun-protective clothing.
- Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when ultraviolet radiation from the sun is most intense.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
“People want to go outside and enjoy life,” she said. “But it’s important to take the appropriate measures to protect your skin.”