10 Ways To Achieve a Tan, Safely

10 Ways To Achieve a Tan, Safely

When exposed to ultraviolet radiation, skin darkens or tans. While some equate having a tan with a healthy glow, it is important to realize that tanning ultimately leads to skin damage. Ultraviolet (UV) rays age skin, promoting wrinkles and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

If you intend to be in the sun and could get tanned skin, there are ways to stay safe, including using sunscreen effectively, avoiding peak hours, and drinking plenty of water.

When choosing a sunscreen, most people assume that the SPF (sun protection factor) indicates how long you can be in the sun before burning. However, the SPF tells you the level of sun protection provided. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), the best sunscreen is one that you will wear every day. Other than that, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects you from UVA and UVB rays. It is also suggested to choose a water-resistant sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher and apply it 15 minutes before you plan to be in the sun.

One of the biggest sunscreen mistakes is forgetting to reapply it. However, sunscreen does wear off. And even if it’s water resistant, sweat and swimming can cause it to wash off.

The AAD recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours if you’re outdoors and reapply after swimming or sweating. Up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds even on cloudy days, so you need to reapply even if you think you’re not getting sun.

Knowing your skin tone can help you determine the maximum amount of time you should spend in the sun. To help with this decision, researchers have set maximum time limits based on skin tone.

For instance, people with very light skin should only spend 10 minutes in the sun, while those with olive skin should limit their time to 50 minutes. Determining where your skin tone falls within their recommendations can be useful in determining the safe amount of time you can spend in the sun.

Before spending time in the sun, you may want to check the UV index, which measures the strength of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Knowing the daily level can help you understand how much sun exposure you’re getting. This can also be useful if you are on vacation and are not familiar with the sun’s strength in that area.

Generally speaking, the lower the number, the less exposure you have. For instance, your exposure is low if the UV index is 3-4. It’s higher if the index is around 7-9, and above 10 is extremely high. For example, in states like Arizona and Florida, the UV indexes are typically 10 and above, while in Alaska, the UV index hovers around one. In Maine, it is around 4.

Most experts recommend avoiding the sun during the hottest part of the day—between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The risk of burning during this time period is much higher. Instead, opt for the shade during these hours or stay indoors to prevent damaging your skin.

While it may be tempting to spend the entire day in the sun, this is never recommended. If you plan to go to the beach or the pool, consider limiting your exposure with a chair and umbrella. This allows you to stay out of the sun and limit overexposing your skin. Umbrellas only provide about SPF 3-8, so you still need to apply sunscreen.

If you plan on spending time in the sun at the beach or at the pool, make sure you drink plenty of water. Not drinking enough can dry out your skin and increase your risk of heat-related illnesses.

Plan to drink water even before you are thirsty. If your healthcare provider limits how much water you can drink because you are taking diuretics or water pills, check with them to see how much water is safe for you to drink in hot weather.

Your eyes, face, and lips are particularly susceptible to sunburn and skin damage, so you want to be sure they are protected if you plan to be in the sun. Choose a hat with tightly woven canvas and a brim all the way around to shade your face, ears, and neck. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight in.

Wearing sunglasses consistently when you’re in the sun can protect your eyes from cataracts. Sunglasses also protect the skin around your eyes. Look for sunglasses that offer UVB and UVA protection, and opt for a wraparound pair of glasses to prevent the sun from sneaking in the sides.

Water, sand, and even snow can reflect the sun’s rays. This reflection can increase your chance of sunburn and other sun damage. For this reason, limit your time on the water or sitting in the sand, reapply your sunscreen consistently, and seek shade whenever possible.

Regardless of how much time you spend in the sun, dermatologists (skin specialists) recommend getting screened for skin cancer every year. This is especially important if you work outside or spend time at the beach or pool. The more time you spend in the sun, the more damage you are doing to your skin, which could result in skin cancer. Plus, finding skin cancer early usually results in better outcomes, such as a longer life and a better quality of life.

To ensure everyone has access to skin cancer screenings, the AAD offers free screenings through its SPOT Skin Cancer program. This program has provided more than 2.8 million screenings and is open to the public. You can find a free cancer screening near you by visiting their website and entering your zip code.

If tan-looking skin is a priority, you may want to explore other options besides the sun. For instance, you could look into getting a spray tan. There are also lotions, mousses, and other products you can try to give your skin the glow you want. (You also can give your skin a healthy glow by exercising regularly, implementing a regular skincare routine, and eating nutritious food.)

If using a self-tanner, read the ingredients and make sure they are safe for your skin type—particularly if you have sensitive skin. Here are some tips on how to effectively apply a self-tanner at home:

  1. Exfoliate your skin to remove dead skin cells and smooth rough patches, particularly around your knees, ankles, and elbows
  2. Dry your skin to ensure the self-tanner goes on smoothly
  3. Apply the self-tanner in sections, being careful not to rush and massaging it into your skin in circular motions
  4. Wear a mitt or plan to wash your hands after each section to avoid getting orange palms
  5. Extend and blend very small amounts of the tanner from your wrists to your hands and from your ankles to your feet
  6. Dilute the tanner on your elbows and knees using lotion or water since it tends to go on thicker at your joints
  7. Wait about 10 minutes before getting dressed so that your skin has time to dry
  8. Wear loose clothing and avoid sweating for the next three hours while your self-tanner sets
  9. Remember to wear sunscreen as self-tanner does not prevent you from getting a sunburn

While no one should be in the sun just to tan, some people should avoid the sun. For instance, you should avoid tanning and take extra precautions if you have had any type of skin cancer. Being in the sun consistently increases your risk of developing skin cancer again.

Likewise, people with lupus should avoid sunlight. Sun exposure may trigger skin lesions, rashes, and flares.

Medications and sun allergies can also be important factors to consider.


People taking certain medications should also be careful when in the sun, and their healthcare provider may advise them to avoid tanning, especially because some medications may cause photosensitivity. Photosensitivity, which is a chemically-induced change in your skin, makes you sensitive to sunlight. It can cause a rash, sunburn, and other side effects.

Here are some common medications that can cause photosensitivity:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (in cosmetics)
  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Antihistamines
  • Cholesterol drugs
  • Diuretics
  • NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Retinoids
  • Sulfonamides
  • Some diabetes medications

If you’re taking medications or supplements, always check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist regarding the safety of being in the sun while taking the drug.

Sun Allergy

Some people develop an allergic response when they are exposed to sunlight. Known as solar urticaria, this reaction is a rare type of sun allergy that causes hives. These itchy welts appear on the skin within minutes and are thought to be an abnormal immune response to UV rays. Other types of sun allergy include actinic prurigo and polymorphous light eruption (PMLE)—both of which cause itchy rashes on the skin after sun exposure.

While many experts—including the AAD, World Health Organization, American Cancer Society, and countless others—advise against tanning, there is some evidence that small amounts of sunlight may be good for you. Some researchers suggest that people need 5-30 minutes of sun at least twice a week without sunscreen to promote vitamin D synthesis.

Not getting enough sunlight has been linked to depressed moods, poor sleep, and even death. One study found that a lack of sunlight may be linked to 340,000 deaths yearly in the United States. Another study found that for each hour people spend outside in natural light, there was a decreased risk of developing depression. Getting enough sunlight during the day also can help you sleep better and be more productive at work.

Some limited research suggests that sunlight may help you lose weight. One study found that the sun’s rays may shrink the fat cells beneath your top layer of skin when exposed to the sun. However, more research is needed before being in the sun can be recommended as a weight loss technique.

Tanning comes with a host of risks, including everything from sunburns, sun allergies, and skin cancer. There is very little benefit, if any, to tanning.

Tanned skin is a sign of damaged skin. When you tan, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation that causes genetic damage to your skin cells. To prevent further damage, your skin will produce melanin, which darkens your skin—or a tan. What’s more, this damage is cumulative—your skin cells are forever altered from the moment of your very first tan.

This damage can lead to premature aging, wrinkles, dark spots, and leathery skin. You can also develop actinic or solar keratoses, considered the earliest stage of skin cancer. Caused by long-term exposure to sunlight, they are diagnosed in 5 million people in the United States each year.

Eye damage, or photokeratitis, also can occur while tanning. This damage occurs when the cornea gets a sunburn. It’s sometimes called snow blindness because it’s most common at high altitudes where the light reflections off of snow are high. You are also at an increased risk for macular degeneration and cataracts from tanning. Even your immune system can become suppressed by too much sun.

Are Tanning Beds Safe?

Tanning beds can be potentially worse than tanning from sun exposure. Indoor tanning beds can emit ultraviolet radiation 10-15 times higher than the sun at its most direct exposure. You also have a 75% increased risk of developing melanoma if you start using indoor tanning beds before age 35. There are more skin cancer cases worldwide due to indoor tanning than there are lung cancer cases due to smoking.

Most people believe tanning beds are safer than direct sunlight, but they have been repeatedly linked to skin cancers. One study of 63 women diagnosed with melanoma before age 30 found that 61 of them, or 97%, used tanning beds. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified indoor tanning as a human carcinogen.

There is very little benefit to tanning. It comes with many risks, including everything from sunburns to sun allergies and skin cancer. Tanned skin is a sign of damaged skin.

That said, being in the sun is not all bad and sometimes inevitable. There is some evidence that 5-30 minutes of sunlight at least twice a week without sunscreen is good for you and is even necessary for vitamin D synthesis.

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