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Can You Ever Tan Safely?

A couple on the beach

As the weather gets warmer, we’re all eager to spend time outdoors and soak up some sun. But it’s important to consider whether or not tanning is ever truly safe. We spoke with dermatologists to explore the question of whether or not it’s possible to tan safely, as well as how to protect your skin during sun exposure and reverse damage from previous tanning.

Can You Tan Safely Outdoors?

Two women tan at the beach
Aila Images/Shutterstock.com

According to Jason A. Clark, MD, FAAD, Harvard-trained laser and cosmetic dermatologist, the short answer is no, you cannot tan safely outdoors.

“The skin’s immediate response to DNA damage is to darken over the course of hours to days,” he explained. “Later, over years, the skin responds with signs of premature aging that compromise skin texture and tone.”

Dr. Deirdre Hooper, MD, FAAD, also advises against using the sun to get a tan, as tanning is a sign of skin damage.

When your skin is exposed to the sun, it produces melanin as a way to protect itself from further damage. This melanin causes your skin to darken, creating the appearance of a tan. However, this process also increases your risk of skin cancer.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds and sunlamps, is the primary cause of skin cancer. While some types of skin cancer are treatable, others can be deadly. Melanoma, for example, is a type of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body and is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths.

While it may be tempting to try to get a tan this summer, it’s simply not worth the risk to your health. Instead, consider using self-tanning products or embracing your natural skin tone.

“A spray tan or self-applied tanning product is a safe way to achieve a tanned look without the harmful effects of outdoor UV light or indoor tanning beds,” said Dr. Clark.

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How Do You Protect Your Skin During Sun Exposure?

Three kids play under a beach umbrella
Bilibin Maksym/Shutterstock.com

If you do plan to spend time outdoors, it’s important to take steps to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to keep yourself safe while enjoying the sunshine.

Use Sunscreen

Three women apply sunscreen

One of the most important things you can do to protect your skin is to use sunscreen. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher (Dr. Clark recommends at least SPF 50), and be sure to apply it liberally and frequently.

In general, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours for consistent protection, even on cloudy days. If you are in and out of water, you should reapply sunscreen every hour.

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This moisturizing sunscreen formula will protect your skin from harmful UVA/UVB rays while enriching your skin with Vitamin E.

Topical antioxidants can help protect your skin from sun damage by neutralizing the free-radical damage caused by sun exposure. Topical vitamins C and E, as well as topical selenium, have been shown to protect the skin against sunburn, suntan, skin cancer, and photoaging. Dr. Hooper recommends Revision Skincare Vitamin C Lotion.

Revision Skincare Vitamin C Lotion 30%

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Seek Shade

A woman reads in the shade

Another way to protect your skin is to sit or stand in the shade when you’re outdoors. This can mean sitting under an umbrella, tree, or other sheltered area.

“Seek the shade as much as possible,” said Dr. Clark.

Keep in mind that UV rays can still reach you even when you’re in the shade, since you are still vulnerable to indirect radiation and UV rays that can reflect off surfaces and penetrate through shade materials with holes or gaps. Seeking shade plus using sunscreen or wearing sun-protective clothing is the best practice to limit sun damage.

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Wear Protective Clothing

A boy and his dad at the beach
Aleksei Potov/Shutterstock.com

Dr. Clark and Dr. Hooper both recommend wearing protective clothing while out in the sun. This can include long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats with wide brims.

Look for clothing made from tightly woven fabrics, as these offer the best protection. You can also find clothing that is specifically designed to block UV rays, including shirts and pants. It is still smart to wear sunscreen and seek shade while out in the sun, regardless of what you’re wearing.

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Can You Reverse Damage From Previous Tanning?

A woman getting a skin treatment
Odua Images/Shutterstock.com

If you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun in the past and have developed sun damage or premature aging as a result, you may be wondering if it’s possible to reverse this damage.

“Indoor and outdoor tanning results in DNA damage that increases the risk of skin cancers and results in signs of premature aging such as sun spots, age spots, broken capillaries and wrinkles,” said Dr. Clark. “A board-certified dermatologist can treat precancerous lesions and reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, however, once a skin cancer forms, surgery is usually needed to achieve a cure.”

While you can’t completely undo the effects of sun damage, there are things you can do to improve the appearance of your skin and reduce your risk of further damage.

One of the most important things you can do is to protect your skin from further damage by following the tips outlined above. You can also work with a dermatologist or skincare professional to develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your specific needs. Some treatments that may be effective for reversing sun damage include:

  • Chemical peels: This involves applying a chemical solution to the skin, which causes it to exfoliate and eventually peel off. This can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage.
  • Laser therapy: This involves using a laser to target and remove damaged skin cells. This can help to improve the texture and tone of your skin, as well as reduce the appearance of sun damage, although Dr. Clark noted that more research is needed to determine how effective cosmetic lasers are at reducing skin cancer risk.
  • Topical treatments: There are a variety of topical treatments available that can help to improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin. Dr. Hooper recommends trying a prescription-strength retinoid, which can stimulate dormant cell turnover and reverse the effects of sun damage.

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It’s important to keep in mind that while these treatments can be effective, they are not a replacement for sun protection. If you continue to expose your skin to UV rays, you will continue to experience damage and premature aging.

“While we can reverse the cosmetic and medical effects of prior outdoor tanning,  I tell my patients nothing works as well as preventing skin cancer, discoloration, wrinkles and textural changes to begin with as careful sun protection,” said Dr. Clark.

It can feel so nice to get a tan, but it’s more dangerous than you might think. Here’s what you need to know about tanning this summer and how to protect your skin.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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