Along with a swimsuit and pair of sandals, making a trip to the tanning salon for a base tan is often found on many women’s to-do lists before jetting off on a tropical vacation. A base tan has long been considered essential vacation prep because the practice is believed to reduce the risk of getting sunburned when spending more time than usual outside under the sun’s potent rays. Given that we now know how damaging tanning beds are for our skin, is getting a tan before a vacation really necessary to stop potential sunburns and, most importantly, is it safe for your complexion?
“People do have that concept or notion that they should get a base tan. While it’s true that a tan is less serious than a burn, because if you get burned directly it increases the risk of melanoma, a tan is actually a marker of DNA damage, so there’s really no such thing as a healthy tan,” says Elizabeth Hale, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., Founder & Director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center, agrees: “People used to think that a 'base tan' would prevent a burn so therefore it is 'healthy' for the skin. But getting tan is actually the skin’s way of showing it’s been damaged already, so it certainly isn’t healthy either.”
While tanned skin may hide small imperfections, like spider veins, or even make your legs appear more sculpted, it’s actually a visible sign that your skin is damaged. “A tan is a response to ultraviolet light damage where the skin starts to create more pigment. By definition, you can’t get tan without having some skin damage to cause it,” explains Dr. Tanzi. If you’re headed to the beach for a week or feel strongly about not baring your legs this summer until they don’t look as pasty, the safest way to get that glow you’re after if by applying a sunless tanner or booking an appointment for a spray tan.
Both of these methods pose less risk than lying in a tanning bed. “According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, even one indoor tanning session can increase your melanoma risk by 20 percent, so it’s extremely damaging,” says Dr. Hale. “Doing indoor tanning, especially after your skin has been hibernating all winter, is actually much more dangerous than getting a little low-level sun exposure because the indoor lamps emit UV rays that are 20 times more powerful than the sun.”
That being said, neither tanning bed alternative provides adequate UV/UVA protection from the sun so it’s important to ensure you apply sunscreen on your entire body, ideally 30 minutes before heading outdoors. It should be reapplied every two hours once you’re in the midst of enjoying warm weather. Dr. Hale also suggests wearing a hat, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing as extra precautions.