If you got too much sun and are hoping your lobster-esque sunburn turns to a tan, you may be out of luck.
Whether a sunburn fades to a tan depends on your skin type, which isn’t something you can really control. Here’s a look at the ins and outs of sunburns, tans, and everything in between.
It might look nice, but a tan is basically just a sign of skin damage.
The golden hue you get from sun exposure is created from your body’s response to injury, which in this case is injury to your skin layers caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
A tan is actually the result of a two-part process:
The sun’s UV rays damage cells in the top layer of your skin. Your immune system responds by increasing blood flow to the affected areas, which is why sunburns are red and feel warm to the touch.
At the same time, chemicals released by the damaged skin cells message your brain, which results in pain. This happens anywhere from 6 to 48 hours after sun exposure.
Your body increases the production of melanin as a way to try to protect your skin from further damage. Melanin is the pigment responsible for the color of your skin, hair, and eyes.
If you have a skin type that’s capable of tanning, the melanin will darken your skin within 48 of sun exposure.
Experts determine a person’s skin type by using the Fitzpatrick skin type (FST) scale.
The classification estimates the amount of melanin in your skin based on your:
- skin color
- hair color
- eye color
It’s not a perfect system, but it can give you a general idea of what you can expect your skin to do after sun exposure.
Use the chart below to figure out your FST:
|red or blond
|light blue, light gray, or light green
|always burns, always peels, doesn’t tan
|white to light beige
|blue, gray, or green
|burns and peels often, tans poorly
|fair-to-beige with golden undertones
|dark blond or light brown
|hazel or light brown
|tans after burning
|olive or light brown
|rarely burns, tans easily
|dark brown or black
|rarely burns, tans darkly easily
|very dark brown
|dark brown or black
|never burns, always tans darkly
If you’re feeling the burn from too much time in the sun, the damage is done and treatment won’t heal it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get relief.
There are actually a few things you can (and should) do for your sunburn that may help it feel better and lower your chances of complications, like infection.
Speaking of complications…
Severe sunburns may require medical treatment. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends getting medical help for a sunburn that causes blisters over a large portion of your body or that’s accompanied by:
To treat a mild to moderate sunburn at home, give these tips a try:
- Chill out. Cool your skin several times a day by taking a cool bath or shower or applying a clean towel dampened with cool water to the area.
- Medicate. Take an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) to soothe pain and swelling.
- Moisturize. Use aloe vera gel or lotion to soothe pain and itching and prevent drying.
- Use corticosteroids. Apply an OTC corticosteroid cream on mild to moderate sunburns to relieve pain and swelling.
- Don’t pick. Avoid popping blisters or peeling your skin.
- Clean regularly. Use mild soap and water to keep open blisters clean, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover with a nonstick dressing.
- Hydrate. Drink plenty of water to avoid getting dehydrated.
There’s no totally safe way to suntan, but if you spend a lot of time in the sun (or are just totally gung-ho on getting a tan), there are a few things that can make things a tad safer.
- Wear sunscreen. Sunscreen does prevent tanning to some degree, but not completely. Wear at least SPF 30 when you’re spending a lot of time outdoors, whether your goal is to bake to a golden glow or not. Sunscreen can help prevent sunburns and lowers your risk of premature aging and skin cancer.
- Forget the idea of the base tan. A base tan is not a substitute for sunscreen, no matter what the sales clerk at the tanning salon tells you. There’s little evidence that getting a base tan will prevent sunburn. And no, tanning beds aren’t safer than the sun. As a matter of fact, even one tanning session can significantly increase the risk for all types of skin cancer, including melanoma.
- Avoid midday sun. UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is when your risk of getting a gnarly sunburn really fast is highest. Try to keep your sun exposure to a minimum during this time.
If you want to get that sun-kissed glow without risking your health, then consider some UV-free alternatives. You have a couple options.
Sunless tanning products contain a color additive called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied to the skin, DHA reacts with the dead skin cells on the surface layer, darkening your skin for a few days.
Self-tanning creams, lotions, and sprays come in various shades so you can choose how light or dark a tan you want.
Spray tans use an airbrush machine to apply a thin layer of self-tanner to the skin. It’s typically done by a professional, but if you’re a hardcore tanner, you can buy a home machine for a few hundred bucks.
Depending how dark you go, a spray tan typically lasts from 5 to 10 days.
There’s no guarantee that your sunburn will turn into a tan, especially if you’re fair-skinned. Your best bet for a guaranteed tan (that’s also safe) is to just do it yourself (or have someone else do it for you) with a self-tanner or a spray tan.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.