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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Is there such a thing as a safe suntan?

Safe tan

With summertime comes warm days in the sun, baseball games, barbecues and lazy days at the beach. And, for many, it's the time to celebrate the end of winter with a deep, "healthy" summer tan. But is there a way to safely tan your skin without exposing it to the damage that may lead to skin cancer? "The answer is no," says Dr. David Boyd, Intake Physician at our hospital near Phoenix. "Tanned skin is damaged skin." But there are steps that may help prevent burns and protect the skin from excessive damage, he says. 

Skin tans when cells just below the skin's surface, called melanocytes, are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light and produce melanin, a pigment that darkens skin. Melanin absorbs UV light and helps protect the skin from burning. But too much UV light may do serious damage. UV light penetrates deeply and may cause premature aging of the skin, eye damage and harm to the DNA of skin cells that may lead to basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, the two most common types of skin cells. Worse, damaged melanocytes may develop into melanoma, which accounts for 2 percent of all skin cancers, but more than 90 percent of skin cancer deaths.

Ultraviolet rays are difficult to avoid. They have the power to bounce off water, snow and sand, and penetrate windows, windshields and clothing. Children, young adults and people with fair skin are at greater risk of cell damage from UV light. "Over time, you will develop pigment," Dr. Boyd says. "That's the way our body works. Our melanocytes are there to protect us against the sun. It's going to happen." To help protect your skin from the damage caused by UV light, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you: 

  • Use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher if you plan to be outside longer than 20 minutes. The sunscreen should be water resistant and protect against UVA and UVB rays. Reapply regularly, especially after sweating or getting out of the water.
  • Don't burn. Sunburns have been linked to an increased risk of melanoma.
  • Avoid tanning booths and beds that use damaging ultraviolet light. Several states prohibit the use of tanning booths for people under 18. And some countries, including Australia, have banned tanning salons. Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.
  • Be especially vigilant in protecting yourself from sun damage between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is often strongest. Seek shade when you can. And cover up with a wide-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses and long sleeves and pants.
  • Examine your skin for suspicious spots every month and see a dermatologist for skin checks once a year.

If you want that golden tan without baking in the sun, many self-tanning lotions and sprays produce a better result than they once did, but they still pose risks, Dr. Boyd says. "Self-tanners have come a long way," he says. "When they first came out in the ’90s, they made people look orange. As far as the safety, the jury is still out." Many sunless tanners contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar that, when combined with the amino acids on the surface of the skin, produce a brown or dark tan pigment. Research is mixed on whether DHA is harmful, but some studies have concluded that it may damage DNA.

Even though tans are not safe, that won’t stop many active people from enjoying the outdoors this summer. And it shouldn’t. Outdoor activities are one way to get exercise, which helps reduce the risk of cancer and other illnesses. Moderate sun exposure also helps the body produce vitamin D, which has been shown to boost the immune system and promote the growth of healthy cells. "People are going to do what people are going to do," Dr. Boyd says. "I'm not saying it's OK to go out and get tan. But this is summertime. People are going to want to be outside. But what you can do is reduce your risk."

Learn about the do's and don'ts of barbecuing.