A tan occurs when sunlight or artificial ultraviolet (UV) rays hit the skin, causing a pigment called melanin to form. Melanin is responsible for the brown glow we associate with tans, but it’s also the skin’s way of protecting itself against UV damage caused by the sun.
A tan you receive from outdoor exposure is mainly the result of UVA rays from the sun, as the large majority of the sun’s UVB rays are absorbed by the earth’s ozone layer. Tanning beds usually have a mix of UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays have more energy than UVA rays, can directly damage your DNA, and are the cause of most skin cancers — though both UVA and UVB rays can damage your skin.
Spray tans, where the color additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is evenly applied to temporarily darken skin cells, are a popular alternative to achieving a tan without exposure to harmful UV rays.
There is no medical benefit to having a tan, but some people prefer the look of tanned skin. Legend has it that tanning became popular in 1923 when Coco Chanel was sunburned on a trip to the South of France. Photos of her tanned supposedly became a sign of beauty and relaxation.
Tans will last for different lengths of time depending on how you got it (from UV rays or spray). There are some things you can do to extend the life of your tan, but it won’t be permanent.
The lifespan of a tan depends on what type of tan it is. It will also depend on your skin and how frequently your skin regenerates.
Generally speaking, a tan that was achieved through sunbathing outside can be expected to last 7 to 10 days before the outer layer of the skin begins to exfoliate naturally.
Spray tans can start to fade in as little as 1 day without proper care and can last as long as 10 days.
While there is no scientific evidence to back this up, spray tan expert Jules Von Hep said in a Marie Claire interview that some clients’ skin does not take a spray tan as well in the week before or during, their period so you may want to wait until the week after, if possible.
Can a tan be permanent?
A tan is never permanent because skin naturally exfoliates itself over time. This causes the tanned skin to flake off. New cells are formed and older skin sloughs off.
Anyone who you see who seems “permanently” tan either has darker skin naturally, uses a sunless tanning lotion or spray tans, or goes in the sun regularly.
UVA radiation in tanning beds is as much as three times more intense than UVA in natural sunlight. Tanning beds are categorized as carcinogenic to humans by The World Health Organization’s International Agencyfor Research on Cancer (IARC). Tanning beds and booths should be avoided.
There are a few things you can do to keep a tan from fading, thereby extending the life of your tan.
- Exfoliate your skin before going in the sun or getting a spray tan. This will keep skin from flaking and will give a spray tan a smooth, even base on which to stick.
- Take lukewarm or cool showers. Hot water dehydrates skin, which can cause a tan to fade more quickly.
- Keep your skin moisturized. Hydrated skin will slow your body’s exfoliation. You can moisturize your skin with a natural oil like coconut or avocado oil.
- Use a tan extender or supplement with a tanning lotion. Some tan extenders actually stimulate the production of melanin.
You should always wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 when spending time in the sun. You will likely need to use more sunscreen than you think.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using at least 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass or approximately the size of a golf ball) to cover all exposed skin. You’ll need to reapply sunscreen every 2 to 3 hours and after going in the water.
The risks of getting too much sun include:
- heat rash
- premature aging (skin loses elasticity in the sun which can cause wrinkles and skin damage)
- dehydration, caused by sweating from the heat
- melanoma and other skin cancers
- eye damage, because staring at the sun can damage the rods and cones in the retina
How long your tan lasts depends on whether you got it from sunbathing or from a spray tan at a salon. While no tan is permanent, with proper care you can extend the life of your tan by a few days.
Generally speaking, tans will last up to 7 to 10 days before skin starts to naturally exfoliate and regenerate. If you exfoliate your body before tanning, use a tan extender, and keep skin moisturized your tan may last longer than anticipated.