Walking through any pharmacy aisle attests to the popularity of two kinds of products: bottles of potent full-spectrum sunscreens that protect against cancer-causing sunburns and wrinkled skin, which sit next to artificial tanning lotions, creams, and sprays.
But recent theories about Vitamin D deficiencies, including attempts to link our mostly-indoor lifestyle to autism, have some shoppers placing sunscreen back on the shelf—despite skin cancer remaining the cause of death for one in five Americans.
As the weather’s warming up, and with it, our desire to look like we passed winter next to a pool instead of a glowing screen, we wanted to know if being sun-kissed could really provide benefits beyond skin-deep vanity. Here’s what we found:
1. There’s no such thing as a healthy bit of bronze.
Living next to the Caribbean, typing every word of this pains me. See, I thought I’d found a happy medium by applying an SPF 15 and staying out of the sun during “peak hours” of ten to four. That combination has allowed me to avoid turning into the redder half of a surf n’ turf platter while still enjoying some time in the sun.
Ignorance really was bliss.
According to Jennifer MacGregor, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University “Any change in skin color, whether it’s a tan or burn, is a sign of skin damage.”
“Any change in skin color, whether it’s a tan or burn, is a sign of skin damage.”
That's because as soon as UV rays penetrate the skin, pigment production goes into overdrive, acting as a protective shield. The effect is less dramatic if you're wearing sunscreen but still a sign you've had too much. 
That “healthy bit of bronze” I was boasting isn’t just pigment production. It’s a clear sign of UV radiation that causes DNA mutations—which can lead to all three types of skin cancer, including the most fatal and increasingly common one among young sun worshipers: melanoma.
2. Your legs still need sun protection, even if they remain stubbornly pale.
The skin on your legs is thicker, produces less moisture, and tends not to make as much melanin as the rest of your body. This can lead some seeking to spruce up their pale pins to decide that it’s perfectly okay to apply SPF only from the waist up.
Unfortunately, skin cancer loves anywhere the sun touches—including on your legs, back, feet, and chest.
So while it’s good to protect your face, chest, neck, and arms, skipping the rest of you leaves you vulnerable. Not just to skin cancer, but signs of aging as well: You’ve heard the bit about telling how old someone is simply by looking at the back of her hands? It’s a dead giveaway for years of unprotected sun exposure.
3. Base tans only provide SPF 3 protection—which is less than a white t-shirt.
Thinking of soaking up a little sun to ease skin into warmer months? A few brave scientists studied the bare buttocks of 16 young adults and found that a base tan offers almost no protection against future ultraviolet exposure.
Why their buttocks? From the Scientific American:
“Because butt cheeks do not typically get much time in the sun, a team of British scientists asked 16 young healthy adults to bare their previously unexposed posteriors to simulated sunlight for one 1998 study.
The volunteers, who had varying shades of pale skin, agreed to subject their rumps to two weeks of daily tanning sessions that dosed them with ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays on par with London’s summer noonday sun.
Yet even among people who tanned easily, the tanning sessions only gave them “very modest” protection, equivalent to a sunscreen with SPF 2. Other studies, including work looking at darker, olive-colored skin, came to similar conclusions: A tan affords a sun protection factor of 3 or less.” 
Dermatologists are adamant at dispelling the myth of a base tan for a few reasons: There’s the fear that that sunbathers who have a bit of color will compound the injuries to their skin with riskier behavior, such as going longer in between sunscreen applications or not wearing it at all.
There’s also the worry that the pervading base tan myth will lead people into a tanning bed, which it turns out are pretty much the worst thing for your skin short of just setting it on fire. (Slight exaggeration, but seriously...)
4. There is literally no upside to indoor tanning.
While rates of indoor tanning have risen by 27% since the 1980s, melanoma cases in young women shot up 50% in the same time period. 
Despite multiple studies proving that indoor tanning is driving an increase in skin cancer statistics, there’s still a lot of misleading information online about the safety and benefits of indoor tanning beds.
Here’s what you need to know about indoor tanning:
- It’s not safer than the sun. Salon-goers are often told that tanning beds are safer, since you can control the UV levels. However, this “control” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But the bulbs used in tanning equipment are typically two to three times more intense than natural sunlight—meaning that one minute in a bed could be akin to 3 minutes in the noon-day sun. Additionally, the UV radiation is variable, so that tanners are left guessing how long to bake in one bed versus another.
- It doesn’t provide you with Vitamin D. When you lie in an indoor tanning bed, you are exposed primarily to UVA, which penetrates deep into the surface of the skin, damaging the cells beneath and prematurely aging your skin. But it is UVB (the sun burning rays) — not UVA — which helps the skin make vitamin D. 
More so, getting a base tan from a tanning bed appears to be an even worse idea than preemptively exposing yourself to the sun.
UVA is often chosen for tanning beds because its longer wavelength penetrates deeper into the skin and is less likely to cause sunburn. However, this triggers a different reaction than the sun’s mostly-UVB rays.
UVB rays are better at triggering several more long-term protective mechanisms in response to cellular damage. Those include the production of more melanin, skin thickening, and signaling DNA repair systems that try to correct for mutations before they are carried forward.
In contrast, UVA-only lamps trick your body into redistributing its existing melanin in response to UVA exposure—which results in the immediate skin darkening that indoor tanning fans love so much. It also means that tanning from UVA-only light provides protection that doesn’t even meet an SPF 1.5 threshold. So much for that idea of getting an indoor base tan before your next vacation.
5. Having darker skin doesn’t mean you can forgo sun protection.
Having more pigment in your skin is correlated with a slightly lowered risk of skin cancer, but you’re not immune—one CDC paper found that up to 30 percent of darker-skinned ethnic groups reported at least one sunburn in the previous year.
Here’s what you need to know to stay sun safe:
For the typical person with dark skin, the more melanin acts as an SPF around 10-15—primarily defending against ultraviolet B rays. However, that melanin provides less protection against ultraviolet A rays which are also harmful.
But, those numbers aren’t exact because judging the protection offered by a certain skin color isn’t as simple as it looks. People’s ancestries are often much more heterogeneous (diverse) than you think. This means that even if you have a dark complexion, you could have genes that make you more susceptible to skin cancer.
What’s scarier is that the misconception that people of color don’t need to worry about sun protection means that some don’t get checked out as often.
However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, all types of skin cancers are increasing among people of color in the U.S., including African-Americans and Hispanics. In people of color, basal cell carcinoma is the most common of the skin cancers, and leads to more deaths because of late detection.
Additionally, we’ve learned that people with darker complexions are more prone to developing skin cancers in the least sun-exposed areas, such as the soles of their feet, palms, toenails and fingernails, and around the mouth. These include cancerous moles, freckles, lesions and sores present very differently in darker-pigmented skin. They may be red, purple or black in color, change in size quickly, or bleed easily.
So if you have a darker complexion, start putting on sunscreen as well as wearing a hat. In addition, be sure to check for any skin changes (change in color, texture, size) or moles in areas of the body that have no pigment, such as the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And don't forget to look at toenails and fingernails for any unusual spots or stripes.
6. You can get your Vitamin D elsewhere.
It’s difficult to find a doctor that still has at least one foot in the pro-limited-exposure camp. I was able to find sun-supportive statements by Frank Lipman, M.D., who spoke on the benefits of sun exposure as a means of spiking our natural levels of vitamin D to Cosmopolitan Magazine:
“I have a problem calling the sun a problem,” says Dr. Lipman. “In the past 50 years, the medical community has demonized the sun in the same way it did fat and salt a decade ago—and today we know certain fats are good for you and salt is not necessarily bad.” 
Dr. Lipman, a self-proclaimed health evangelist, states on his own website:
“We evolved in the sun; we were made to get some sun, not to live our lives indoors and slather on sunscreen every time we go outside. If the sun is shining where you are today, get out and enjoy it, talk about a free natural treatment! All you need is a little common sense when heading outdoors, do it gradually and always avoid sunburn.” 
Hmm. Those words are tempting to someone like myself, who still secretly hopes for any reason to validate getting just a little color. However, my faith in his expertise begins to waiver when I notice that below each blog post in which Dr. Lipman states the benefits of moderate sun exposure, he recommends only doing so when taking regular doses of antioxidant supplements—which he happens to sell.
I think I’ll stick to the safer option of getting my Vitamin D from foods like milk, cereal, yogurt, salmon, mackerel, and tuna.
It Turns Out There’s Just No Safe Way To Tan
Your epidermis completely renews itself every 45 days—what doesn’t refresh is the damage to DNA caused by UV exposure. To avoid any skin scares, follow these important steps:
- Watch the clock. Always wear SPF between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and apply it 30 minutes before heading out (it takes that long for the chemicals to absorb). Outside all day? Reapply every two hours or right after a swim or sweat session.
- Think of your past. Had bad sunburns as a kid? Be extra vigilant as an adult. You’re doubly at risk for melanoma.
- Spot treat. Apply extra SPF to freckles or dark spots — they’re signs of sun damage.
- Get annual skin checks. In this painless exam (a must for everyone), a derm will check for suspicious spots that could be—or lead to—skin cancer.
Sadly, it seems like no matter how hard we may wish, there’s no way that the sun can safely transform pasty skin into bronze.
The good news? Those seeking a safe tan have an abundance of sunless tanners and bronzers to choose from, including daily moisturizers, brush-on powders and sprays—each that promise to gradually add a tan to the skin that washes off over time. Just remember that sunless tanners don’t contain sunscreen ingredients and won’t protect you from UV radiation.
Want to look sun-kissed? Check out: Cocoa Brown Review.
- Is Getting a Tan Really That Dangerous?
- Fact or Fiction?: A "Base Tan" Can Protect against Sunburn …
- American Academy of Dermatology
- Skin Cancer Foundation -- Tanning Beds
- Vitamin D: FAQ