The Myth of the Base Tan

Health Writer
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Sunburn is damaging to your skin and has been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer. That fact is hard to debate. But, a base tan is a different story. Even though most experts will tell you that there is no such thing as a “safe tan,” many people still believe that getting a base tan will prevent them from getting a sunburn and therefore protect them from damage to their skin. The other day, while standing in line at the grocery store I overheard the cashier talking with the woman in front of me. It was obvious they knew each other socially and as the cashier rang up the items in the woman’s cart, they chatted about upcoming summer plans. The woman in line commented that the cashier already looked tan. “Yes,” she said, “I am going on vacation in two weeks and have been working on getting a base tan to protect me from sunburn. I heard it is best to get the base tan before the summer starts so you can tan safely all summer and not worry about sunburn and skin damage.”

Base tan equals an SPF of 4

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. They also recommend that sunscreen is water resistant. Broad spectrum means that the sunscreen protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. Previously, the recommendation was an SPF of 15, however, in recent years this has been increased to 30 to increase the protection to your skin.

Having a tan does offer a little protection from the sun, however, it is equal to an SPF of 4 or less. Even if you look at previous recommendations (SPF 15), a base tan does not give you adequate protection. Dr. Steven M. Rotter explains that when you have a base tan, you can still get a sunburn, “If you would normally burn after 15 minutes of sun exposure, with a tan you would burn in one hour, or four times 15 minutes.”

Tan skin means your skin is damaged

Our bodies have certain mechanisms to help prevent damage. Your skin contains melanin, which gives it color. When your skin is damaged by the sun, it increases the production of melanin, making your skin darker. This is to help protect you from further damage but it also means that you have already damaged the DNA in your skin cells.  Although this type of damage might not be seen immediately, it can lead to premature aging, including wrinkles, sagging skin and brown spots. Avoiding a sunburn by tanning doesn’t stop the DNA damage from occurring, instead it adds to the DNA damage.

Be sun savvy

It is safer to use sunscreen every time you go outdoors, year round. Make sure your sunscreen is broad spectrum, protecting you against UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of at least 30. Sunscreen should be applied about 30 minutes before going outdoors to give it time to be effective. In addition to sunscreen, the AAD recommends wearing protective clothing, such as wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and tightly woven clothing. Whenever possible, stay in the shade during the hours the sun is the strongest, between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

For more information on sunscreen and sunburn:

If My Makeup Has Sunscreen, Is That Enough Protection from the Sun?

How to Choose the Best Sunscreen For You

Sunscreen Questions? A Dermatologist Provides Answers

What is Water-Resistant Sunscreen?

How to Avoid Sunburn This Summer