Written by Paul M. Graham, DO
For decades, people all over the world have participated in an activity that has no scientific backing and is looked upon as a “protective barrier” from the sun. We are talking about a term called a “base tan“. A “base tan” is one of the most widely used excuses for visiting tanning salons across the country. People often believe that obtaining a slight tan will protect them from the damaging effects of the sun. In fact, a “base tan” actually adds to the detrimental effects from the sun, increasing the risk of developing skin cancers and expediting the aging process.
Not surprisingly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has determined that a “base tan“ is equivalent to wearing an SPF 3 or less. An SPF rating this low does very little to provide significant protection from the damaging effects of UV radiation and should not be considered as an option for sun protection. A “base tan” often disguises the classic effects of a typical sunburn such as redness and swelling, giving people more confidence to stay in the sun for longer periods of time without proper sun protection.
Safe Tanning is a Misnomer
It is very important to remember that there is no such thing as a safe tan. Whenever a tan develops from prolonged sun exposure, the damage has already occurred. Tanned skin is a defensive mechanism that our body uses to shield DNA within our skin cells in an attempt to prevent further damage from occurring. On a cellular level, our pigment-producing cells, known as melanocytes, produce and form caps of pigment to cover and protect the nucleus of the cell (where the DNA is located).
This is the body’s first line of self-defense to prevent DNA damage that may lead to the development of skin cancer. Another important point is that ANY sun exposure, whether it be 10 minutes or as long as 8 hours, increases your overall risk for the development of skin cancer. Oftentimes teenagers and young adults don’t realize the long-term effects that will inevitably take place in the decades to follow. Keep in mind that although a tan may look nice temporarily, you increase the aging process exponentially.
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, studies have consistently demonstrated that tanning beds significantly increase the risk of all types of skin cancer. In addition, those who first used tanning beds prior to age 35 have increased their risk for melanoma by 75 percent. By now, it is widely known that the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified tanning beds as “carcinogenic devices”, which is the highest possible category pertaining to cancer risk.
The Bottom Line
Obtaining a “base tan” will do much more harm than good. It is highly recommended that an SPF 30 or higher be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure (to allow proper absorption) and every two hours thereafter. It is also very important to practice good sun protection habits such as wearing sun protective clothing, seeking adequate shade, and avoiding times with the strongest UV index (10am – 4pm). Remember, no tan is a safe tan; but in all reality, stay well informed about the damaging effects of the sun and you can avoid a majority of the damage caused by the UV radiation.
If a tanned-look is desired, there are many options available that do not involve the exposure to ultraviolet radiation such as self-tanning lotions and spray tans, all of which contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a sugar molecule that reacts with skin proteins to produce a darkening effect seen on the surface of the skin as a tan. DHA is the only ingredient that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on the skin for the purpose of sunless tanning.
For more information on sun protection and anti-aging, please make sure to check out our recent articles: SPF: What does it really mean?, Consumer Reports: Top Rated Sunscreens, Facial Sunscreen: What’s the Best?, Sun Protection: The Burning Truth, and Car Windows: Am I Protected from the Sun?.
Photo Credit: Taringa, Sunrise Salon
References: Skincancer.org, Self Magazine
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