Science, Now + Beyond

Is tanning really that bad for us?

Warning: We're gonna throw some shade here.

I’ve always been envious of people who could tan.

Since I’m two shades lighter than Casper in the sun, all I’ve ever been able to do is burn.  Now that the weather is heating up, I’m sure that the next time I go to the beach, there will be tons of people lying out in the sun, happily roasting themselves away.

However, getting a tan this summer might actually be more dangerous than most people realize. It’s common knowledge that burning is really dangerous because getting a sunburn means that the sun exposure has caused skin cells to die, most scientific evidence now suggests that any form of tanning can also be harmful.

That’s because tanning only occurs after damage to the skin has already happened.

Skin tans when cells below the skin’s surface are exposed to the UV rays, either from the sun or from tanning beds, and produces melanin. However, by that point, the UV rays have already pierced through the skin and began to cause damage to DNA. Not only does UV ray exposure cause early skin aging and eye damage, but the DNA damage can increase the risks for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, as well as melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Melanoma accounts for only two percent of skin cancers but causes 90% of skin cancer-related deaths, so you really have to be careful.

Since there’s currently no way to tan without the UV ray exposure, all tans, even minor ones, can be risky.

Take it from Dr. Roxana Daneshjou of Stanford University who says, “There’s really no such thing as safe tanning, other than…putting a fake color on your skin….Some people say ‘Well I should tan because that extra melanin will protect me.’ But that logic doesn’t make sense.”

Even fake tans might not be 100% safe. Many sunless tanners and spray tans have a chemical in them called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), and research is still iffy as to whether or not DHA also damages DNA in the way that UV rays do. It appears that DHA is more harmful in spray tans, as there’s the possibility to inhale the substance, but it’s still unclear how much DHA might get absorbed into the skin when used in a self-tanning lotion. So there is still a possibility that using tanners with DHA could be as harmful as getting tanned naturally or through tanning beds.

So what can you do to keep themselves safe from getting a tan and risking permanent skin damage?

First off, using sunscreen every day actually is important. UV rays can pierce through even on cloudy days and lead to skin damage. Aiming for SPF 30 or 40 is best, and it’s especially important to use reapply sunscreen every few hours when you get into the water, as the water will wash away the sunscreen, leaving you unprotected. Make sure to get a sunscreen that protects against both UVA rays and UVB rays because both types of UV rays can increase your risks of cancer.

And although it can be kinda boring to stay inside, especially during the summer months when there’s so much to do, dermatologists recommend staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is most intense.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always been the best at protecting my skin from sun damage. This newly found evidence has really changed my perspective on tanning.

I mean, yes, I’m still not super comfortable with my extra pale skin tone but it is a lot more preferable than skin cancer due to overexposure to the sun.