Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause skin to darken resulting in a tan. To tan safely, it is advisable to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen and avoid excessive time in the sun or a tanning bed.

Many people appreciate how a tan makes them look. However, tanning carries risks, so it is important to tan safely when exposing the skin to UV rays.

This article explores the benefits and disadvantages of tanning and ways to minimize the risks.

a man sunbathing on float to get a sun tan safelyShare on Pinterest
Daniel Gonzalez/Stocksy

A common misconception is that a tan indicates good health. While there are some health benefits to being in the sun, prolonged exposure damages the skin. This may increase the risk of premature aging and some health conditions.

The following table lists the benefits and risks of sun exposure:

In moderation, sun exposure can increase vitamin D levels.Every time a person tans, they damage the DNA in their skin. This increases the chances of developing the skin cancers basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Many people consider tanned skin to be more aesthetically pleasing.With too much sun, the skin can age prematurely, leading to wrinkles, lines, loose skin, and brown spots. A tan can also make stretch marks more visible.
Studies show that UV exposure can improve a person’s mood.When people spend leisure time outside, it is easy to misjudge how much sun exposure the skin gets, which can lead to sunburn.
Studies suggest sun exposure can reduce eczema and rhinitis in adolescents.

People with darker skin are less likely to get sunburn due to the higher melanin content in their skin, which offers some UV light protection. However, this also means those with darker skin are less able to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight.

As tanning requires sunbathing for extended periods, it always carries some risks, even if people take precautions to minimize them. It is best to limit sun exposure to moderate amounts and wear protective clothing outside.

However, if a person wishes to tan outdoors, they can follow these tips:

  • Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
  • Regularly apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Re-apply after swimming or sweating, even if the sunscreen is water-resistant.
  • Avoid spending excessive time in the sun in one session. It is better to tan in shorter intervals, as a person may not appear burnt until they go inside.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses with 99–100% UVA and UVB protection to protect the scalp and eyes.
  • Drink plenty of water and take regular breaks to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.
  • Seek shade or go indoors if the skin starts to look pink or feel sore. People with darker skin should note that they may not notice any changes in skin color.

It is important to note that not all sun damage occurs when people are directly in the sun. A person should remember:

  • Sand, snow, and water all reflect the sun’s rays and increase the chances of sunburn even if people are in the shade.
  • UV rays can penetrate clouds, so even if the sky looks dark, sunburn can still occur.
  • Trees, umbrellas, and canopies do not offer complete protection. If a person can see their shadow, they may still be exposing themselves to UV light.

A natural tan takes time. However, by protecting themselves from burning, a person can increase the likelihood of their skin becoming brown. This may reduce the amount of time they spend outdoors.

By preventing sunburn, a person also lowers their chances of peeling skin, which means their tan could last longer.

Some people can be more susceptible to skin damage from the sun. Factors that affect how long people can spend in the sun before damage occurs include:

  • Age: Younger skin is more sensitive to sun damage, and exposure to the sun during childhood or adolescence makes skin cancer more likely in later life.
  • Skin type: People with lighter skin are more prone to burning. If someone already has a natural tan, this may offer a small amount of sunburn protection, but not enough to be safe.
  • History of skin cancer: If someone has had skin cancer before, sun exposure could increase the risk of future cancers.

Some people should avoid sun exposure entirely. They include those who have recently:

  • undergone a cosmetic treatment, such as a skin peel or laser hair removal
  • used skincare products containing chemical exfoliants, such as salicylic acid
  • taken certain acne medications, such as isotretinoin, or used topical retinoids
  • taken other medicines that can cause photosensitivity, such as tetracycline antibiotics

A doctor or dermatologist can advise someone when it is safe to spend time in the sun after any treatments.

If someone is taking medication, they should check the label before they tan.

Many people consider tanning beds to be less harmful than natural sunlight, as they emit different amounts of light. However, this is not the case.

Tanning beds can still cause sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, just one tanning bed session increases a person’s chances of developing:

  • melanoma by 20%
  • squamous cell carcinoma by 67%
  • basal cell carcinoma by 29%

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend avoiding tanning beds entirely because of the effects they have on the skin.

However, there are concerns that tanning beds can be addictive, particularly among teenagers. Many states have introduced laws prohibiting them from using tanning beds.

An alternative way to get a tan is to apply fake tan. These products usually contain the compound dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which temporarily stains the skin brown, creating a similar appearance to a natural tan.

Fake tanning may have fewer risks than tanning beds or sunbathing. However, these products are not without drawbacks.

The DHA in fake tan can increase the chances of sunburn if someone becomes exposed to sunlight within 24 hours of application.

Additionally, some fake tan products can look unnatural, leaving an orange tint, streaks, or blotches on the skin.

Fake tan products are available as sprays, lotions, mousses, or gels. Lotions typically last the longest but are more likely to cause streaks or blotches than sprays. Tanning gels and mousses dry faster and are a more suitable option for people with oily skin, as they contain less moisture.

Tanning is a popular activity, particularly among people with lighter skin tones. This is due to the perception that tans make pale skin look healthier or more attractive.

However, while moderate and safe sun exposure has some health benefits, tanning always carries a risk for skin damage and sunburn. It can also increase the likelihood of skin cancer. If a person wishes to tan, it is vital to take precautions to minimize the risks.