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Is going to a tanning salon a good idea before a tropical vacation?
January 25, 2008 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Is going to a tanning salon a good idea before a tropical vacation?

I'm the kind of pale white boy with reddish hair who gets sunburned really easily. Very easily.

And I'm making plans to go to Cabo with a girl in mid-February. Yes, I will slather on the sunscreen religiously. And wear dorky hats with really big brims. But aside from all that...

Would it make sense for me to start visiting a tanning salon between now and then, to build up a little tolerance for the dreaded UV rays? Any and all advice would be most welcome.
posted by browse to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm somewhat pale (olive skinned, used to be tan but now I'm a northerner instead), and I went on a cruise without any pre-tanning, and I was fine as long as I was good about putting on the sunscreen. The day I got cocky and figured I was tan enough to skip the extra sunscreen? I burned. As long as you're really good with the sunscreen, you'll be fine.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:34 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


No. If you sunburn so easily, STAY AWAY from the tanning beds. I tried the method you're asking about when I was younger and it turned out very badly. I don't even burn as easily as you (likely, due to your complexion and hair color) and it was not pretty.

Just stick with your sunscreen and silly hats. Your skin will thank you later by not getting cancer.
posted by cooker girl at 8:34 AM on January 25, 2008


Just as an anecdote: My friend with super-sensitive skin went pre-tanning before she went to Mexico for a few weeks. She still got burned while she was there, but not as bad as she gets when she goes out in the sun at amusement parks & the like -- no blisters, for example.
posted by lilac girl at 8:35 AM on January 25, 2008


From a purely risk averse perspective you would avoid all UV rays by avoiding the salon and avoiding the sun in Cabo, either with umbrellas or sunscreen or both. Some people basically don't tan, at least not very much, and if this is you the tanning salon won't help. If you can tan, but just need to take it easy, then the tanning salon might provide an extra ounce of insurance against a bad burn which could spoil your vacation. You are going to get a lot of answers based upon peoples own prejudices for or against tanning. Only you can really decide what is right for you.
posted by caddis at 8:35 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm also pale with red hair. My advice: Don't do it.

What's the point, if you don't tan anyway? Sounds like you have a good plan in place. Slather on the sunscreen every time you go outside, wear sunglasses, and try to find a hat that you don't feel too dorky about wearing (I don't think the huge brim is that important as long as you get your neck really well with the sunscreen). Another suggestion: wear a loose-fitting, lightweight shirt to cover your shoulders. That's always a sensitive burn area for me. I am a little self-conscious about my gleaming whiteness, and a lightweight open-front top (a madras-fabric button-down, for example) can be comfortable and attractive.

I spent two weeks in the Bahamas and other than some freckles, I came back without any color. Not even lines around my bathing suit.

Have a great trip!
posted by tk at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2008


I think you should go for around 6-8 minutes a session 3-4 times before you go, starting 2 weeks before you leave. The people at the tanning salon should be able to look at your skin and listen to what you have to say about the ease with which you burn and recommend a session length. Since you'll start developing a base tan, you'll be less likely to burn on your vacay. I burn easily in the sun but turn nice and golden-brown from the controlled environment of the tanning salon. It's addictive, honestly.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 8:54 AM on January 25, 2008


An additional data point: my dermatologist tells me that they are now advising everyone to use SPF 70 sun block. The reason is that people don't use the recommended amount, so by using a very high SPF you are coming out okay in the end. Neutrogena has one that isn't too gross.
Also, and you probably know this already, make sure to put sun block on EVERYWHERE, like behind your knees, etc. It's easy to miss spots. Finally, FWIW, when I went on a Caribbean holiday with my pale-skinned BF last year, I had a great time putting the sunblock on him. Your girl may feel same.
posted by annabkr at 8:57 AM on January 25, 2008


If you are not looking for some color, don't bother with the salon and use all of the sunscreen and coverings, etc when you get to Mexico.

If you are looking to go to Mexico to lay out and get color, you should go and get some kind of base color at the tanning beds. That should prevent a really bad burn.
posted by Jay Reimenschneider at 8:59 AM on January 25, 2008


Never go to a tanning salon. Period. I can't believe these places still exist. You're not likely to develop a "base tan" anyway since you are very fair. It's not likely you will build up a tolerance to UV rays by visiting a tanning salon. You'll most likely make your freckles, if you have them, more pronounced, not to mention subject your nice skin to harmful rays that cause cancer. I'm not trying to be preachy, but tanning salons are just as bad a cigarettes.

You'll do fine on your vacation with sunscreen and a hat. Who says pale skin isn't attractive?
posted by LoriFLA at 9:14 AM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I did more or less what you are thinking about: I was to spend a week on the Elephant Butte Beach near El Paso. I am notoriously pale (Danish and Kraut blood) and burn very easily, so I really wanted to innoculate myself against burning. I did not want to spend my entire vacation (a rollicking beach camping trip with lots of beer and swimming and boating, etc.) acting like I was in a hazardous radiation zone for fear of getting so burnt that I would not have fun.

If I recall correctly, I started a tanning-bed blitz about a month beforehand, with my first sessions being HALF the recommended duration. I went EVERY DAY, gradually ramping up my exposure at frequent intervals, skipping a day only when I got a very mild burn.

The strategy worked PERFECTLY. Of all my friends, I was the tannest at the start, and even though I was far from religious with the sunscreen, I did not get burned once, even after a whole day of cavorting shirtless under the July Texas sun. I did not believe the success my "innoculation" scheme resulted in. The base tan, while not a perfect protection, definitely is far better to have in these situations than sunscreen alone. Untanned skin can never really be fully protected by sunscreen, because unless you are superhumanly thorough with frequent applications, there is always that one spot you miss that will hurt like hell later.

Go ahead and pre-tan, and enjoy your trip.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:30 AM on January 25, 2008


you don't really "develop a tolerance" by exposing yourself to UV rays--you just get the sun in a more controlled manner (which helps you avoid a sunburn).

i would skip the tanning salon and stick to the SPF 75. it'll be better for your skin in the long run.

one study does show that a diet rich in tomatoes reduces your risk of sunburn, for what it's worth.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:59 AM on January 25, 2008


Speaking from personal experience, I think tanning salons arent a bad idea...mind you I can't say they're a stellar idea either.

I'm ghostly white...my mother calls it "English porcelain skin" but come on!! I would never go on a sunny vacation without getting a bit of a base tan and a bit of tolerance. Despite what some people say or think you CAN develop a base tan. It won't be dark by any means but it'll help.

I have had people refer to my paleness as being "whiter than the centre of the sun" and i went on a vacation last summer after tanning and didn't burn at all ..despite walking around outside from morning til dusk..whereas if i hadn't tanned i would have looked like red pepper.

My 2 cents.. :)
posted by LiquidKarma at 10:14 AM on January 25, 2008


You could get a spray on tan.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:26 AM on January 25, 2008


Going to a tanning salon is NEVER a good idea. Going to a tropical location and being exposed to the sun with no sunscreen is NEVER a good idea. Why would you want to damage your skin and increase the likelihood of getting skin cancer just so you won't look like a douche bag on the beach?
posted by HotPatatta at 10:30 AM on January 25, 2008


Well considering he's willing to wear a dorky hat and slather on sunscreen it's probably not all for aesthetics....
posted by LiquidKarma at 10:35 AM on January 25, 2008


If you tan, you might burn less. Unfortunately, the extra UV exposure from the tanning means you are more likely to get skin cancer. Ultraviolet radiation increases your risk of cancer even if you do not burn.

This article in the journal Mutation Research says that "any level of photoprotection afforded by the tan is outweighed by damage incurred in its development, particularly in [fair skin]."

The American Academy of Dermatology says:
People who tan are greatly increasing their risk of developing skin cancer. This is especially true if tanning occurs over a period of years because damage to the skin accumulates. Premature aging of the skin (wrinkles) will occur in everyone who is repeatedly exposed to the sun over a long time. Damage may be less apparent and take longer to show up in people with darker skin.
If you don't want to get cancer, or premature wrinkles, always wear sunscreen.
posted by grouse at 10:36 AM on January 25, 2008


Like everyone already said, tanning beds cause cancer, and you're particularly at risk. However ...I am also very pale, and I use self tanner almost year round. If you get the weak kind and build it up, it won't look strange. And then pile the sunscreen on!
posted by piper4 at 10:50 AM on January 25, 2008


It is a myth that you can get a "base tan" that will protect you from sun damage. You get barely any sun protection from already having a tan when you go out - this article says it's the equivalent of SPF 4. So to give yourself the benefit of SPF 4, you're intentionally damaging your skin with the "base tan" rather than just making better use of sunscreen.

There are lots of other myths that the tanning industry would like to sell you on, so don't believe anything else they tell you at the salon, either.
posted by lemuria at 10:55 AM on January 25, 2008


You can burn in a tanning salon; it's happened to pale friends of mine. It would be seriously sucky to go on a vacation when your skin's already burnt and painful from day one.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:07 AM on January 25, 2008


A few things:

If you're not interested in working on the tan while on your vacation, definitely skip the pre-tan, and slather on the high SPF lotion. Bottom line, this is what's best for your skin.

Also, if you haven't spent much time in tanning beds, you risk getting really burned. I don't know what they're like these days, but that's the problem. I used to use them in high school, and I'd go in for the whole 20 minutes, and I'd come out with a few freckles, and it took several appointments to see any tan. But then in college I went to a different place and went in for only 10 minutes and came out with the worst sunburn of my life. A while later I went back, but started with 2 minutes, then 3, and after a long time worked up to the full 20. So I don't know if the technology keeps changing, or what, and don't know what they're like now. But with your complexion, you'd have to be very careful and don't want to risk a burn. (These days my tan mainly comes from out of a bottle. And I'm not tan, just less pasty.)

Next, I have read studies that correlate the number of really bad burns an individual has had with eventual risk of skin cancer. The more instances of a really bad sunburn, the more likely they were to develop a problem. I always used to go to tanning beds before my tropical vacations (in high school) to build a base because I was raised in a time and a place where Tanning Is Desired. So I built up the base, and then didn't have to wear *as much* sunscreen on vacation, and came home with more of a tan than I would have. But I remember at least one time when I thought that I could get away with wearing no sunscreen in Mexico, and my face swelled up with sunburn so bad that my eyes barely opened. The first article that lemuria links to states: "Feeling protected with a base tan, people are more likely to spend time in the tropical sun without sunscreen." Don't do that. But if you're interested in tanning and you're interested in doing some experimentation to see how to maximize you tan (as I did in high school), in the end if you still use lots of sunscreen, you won't get burned. But still, as the article also states, any exposure to the UV is bad. Plain and simple. These days we know it pays to slather on the sunscreen. And it doesn't sound like you're talking about tan maximization, you're talking about protecting your skin. And if that's the case, stay away from the beds. Wear sunscreen, and cover up. :)
posted by iguanapolitico at 12:22 PM on January 25, 2008


I'm not trying to be preachy, but tanning salons are just as bad a cigarettes.

Cite, or despite your intentions, you are simply being preachy. From what I could find by just looking at Wikipedia, studies on regular use of tanning beds in adulthood increase the risk of developing skin cancer by 55%. Frequent use of tanning salons in the teens and 20s increased risk 150% in one study. Also bear in mind that these studies do not control for natural suntanning, since people who use tanning salons are also much more likely to sunbathe. Compare this to smoking, which increases lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by around 1000%. It would seem that two heavily cited Wikipedia articles disagree with you by about an order of magnitude.

Ultraviolet radiation increases your risk of cancer even if you do not burn.[emphasis in original]

That is true, but deceptive. Burning, especially in childhood, is much more strongly correlated with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, than frequent tanning. Regular chronic exposure to the sun does seem to provide some protective benefits as well. Skin cancer is more common in indoor workers than those who work outdoors.

That said, I couldn't find any evidence that going to a tanning salon would provide much in the way of protection from the sun. At best, it would provide a very modest degree of protection that would surely be overwhelmed by the strong tropical sun. While I don't see a compelling reason to go to a tanning salon, I think there is a great deal of exaggeration of the risks in this thread. If you have an ulterior, cosmetic motive for going to the salon, go for it. Statistically, the riskiest thing about occasionally using a tanning salon before a vacation is the drive there.

Just be sure to use plenty of sunscreen. Getting little day to day exposure to sunlight and regularly burning on vacation seems to be one of the most effective ways of getting melanoma.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:25 PM on January 25, 2008


That is true, but deceptive.

Personally, I think what is deceptive (and not even true), is a common belief that you are safe from cancer if you don't burn. It's unclear that the burning itself causes the cancer—it's more likely that it and the cancer share the same underlying cause. And there may be a more proximal shared cause than the ultraviolet exposure. There is extensive evidence that DNA damage itself is what causes facultative tanning.

The World Health Organization says:
Most studies show positive associations with a history of sunburn; however, this association cannot be easily interpreted, because while it might accurately reflect sunburn it could just as well reflect either the tendency to sunburn, if exposed, or intermittent exposure more generally.
posted by grouse at 12:55 PM on January 25, 2008


Deathly pale, blond hair, red beard here. Lived in tropical southern Taiwan for a year. Used sunscreen for the beach; used clothes elsewhere; didn't swim between 10 AM and 2 PM. Never colored up. Of course, I really can't tan; red and white are the only options.

I'm with LoriFLA on this one, for reasons explained by grouse: It's not the burn that does it, it's the UV or its consequences. I am unwilling to pay someone to irradiate me 'preventatively'. And the diagnostic and therepeutic irradiations I am willing to undergo are not with UV.
posted by eritain at 1:48 PM on January 25, 2008


Grouse, from the link you provided (thanks, by the way, that was a very informative and relevant document):
In contrast, the associations with total exposure to the sun over a lifetime or in recent years, as assessed by questionnaire, are inconsistent. This inconsistency may be due to differences in the effects of chronic and intermittent exposure. Chronic exposure, as assessed through occupational exposure, appeared to reduce melanoma risk in three of the large studies, particularly in men; this observation is consistent with the descriptive epidemiology of the condition, which shows lower risks in groups that work outdoors. Several other studies, which were generally smaller or had less detailed methods of exposure assessment, show either no effect or an increased risk associated with occupational exposures.
This is referring to the risk of malignant melanoma. It is true that chronic moderate exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of basal and squamous cell carcinomas, but realistically, the skin cancer worth worrying about is melanoma. In this case, there does seem to be a protective effect from chronic moderate exposure to UVR. This is not to say that I think tanning bed sessions before a tropical vacation will confer a significant protective effect, especially for a very fair skinned person. I think I've already made this clear.

Personally, I think what is deceptive (and not even true), is a common belief that you are safe from cancer if you don't burn. It's unclear that the burning itself causes the cancer—it's more likely that it and the cancer share the same underlying cause.

This is fair enough, I was being imprecise when I said the risk of skin cancer is greater for indoor workers. I should have specified melanoma. I think it's useful to distinguish between melanoma and other skin cancers. I don't dispute that tanning without burning increases the risk of basal and squamous cell carcinoma; however, there is limited evidence that tanning but not burning may have a protective effect against melanoma. I'm not making any claims that this means using a tanning bed before going on vacation will help reduce the risk of cancer, especially for someone with very fair skin.

I just think that the relative risks here are being blown way out of proportion. While tanning but not burning seems to be a risk factor for non-metastasizing forms of skin cancer, I don't think there is enough evidence that it elevates the risk of melanoma. Even then, I don't understand a lot of the worry about skin cancer. As far as risk of death or disfigurement, it ranks pretty low. If we approached risk purely by the numbers, we'd tan a lot more often than we got behind the wheel of a car, and roofers would get a lot more respect for putting their ass on the line every day than cops or firemen. Personally, I wonder if promoting fear of the sun is counterproductive by giving people another reason or excuse to stay sedentary and indoors, which causes a lot more morbidity and death than sunlight. Moreover, tanning, whether in the sun or salon, has positive psychological effects for many people.

Finally, in the IARC monograph, the conclusion as to the carcinogenicity of tanning beds is somewhat equivocal:
5.5 Evaluation

There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of solar radiation. Solar radiation causes cutaneous malignant melanoma and nonmelanocytic skin cancer.

There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlamps and sunbeds. [emphasis in original]
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:39 PM on January 25, 2008


If laying down a base tan is an SPF 4, that means it increases your sun tolerance by a factor of four. Not exactly nothing.

Melanin safely absorbs UV light. That's why we have it in us.
posted by gjc at 9:02 PM on January 25, 2008


There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlamps and sunbeds.

Well, that IARC study is 10 years old. Their most recent work says:
On balance, the evidence pertaining to the strength, consistency, dose-response and temporal sequence of the association of the use of indoor tanning equipment with melanoma risk, and of the coherence and biologic plausibility of the association, leads us to conclude that there is convincing evidence to support a causal relationship, particularly with exposure before the age of 35 years.
If we approached risk purely by the numbers, we'd tan a lot more often than we got behind the wheel of a car, and roofers would get a lot more respect for putting their ass on the line every day than cops or firemen.

I'd be all for it if people drove cars less. Or not at all. But that doesn't mean that any risk less than driving is acceptable. Driving a car is necessary to go about daily life in many places. Tanning salons are not necessary anyplace.

I wonder if promoting fear of the sun is counterproductive by giving people another reason or excuse to stay sedentary and indoors, which causes a lot more morbidity and death than sunlight.

Indeed. Personally, that's where I draw the line. I don't let fear of the sun keep me indoors, I just wear a lot of sunscreen.
posted by grouse at 1:41 AM on January 26, 2008


Tanning salons are not necessary anyplace.

I never said they were, but that perhaps there are reasons people would want to use one. For years, I tended to treat tanning salons derisively as a peculiar institution of the exceedingly vain. I also tended to limit my exposure to sunlight, either outright (easy in rainy Vancouver) or with sunscreen. Two years ago, my girlfriend received a huge chunk of bed time from her mom because her salon was closing doors and she wouldn't have a chance to use what she had purchased. When she asked if I would go with her, I did it more for the novelty than anything. While my fair complexion didn't appreciably darken, I certainly noticed an immediate improvement in my mood that I certainly didn't expect, but made sense when I remembered how some of my relatives in Finland used sunlamps or tanning beds in the winter when solar radiation is so woefully absent.

What I'm driving at here is that there seems to be a number of voices here saying essentially the same thing, that tanning is reckless and the only choice a reasonable person should make is minimizing your exposure to UV radiation. While I agree that there's no evidence that it will protect against skin cancer, the same can't be said of sunburns. I certainly don't think it's fair to say that they should never be used. One of the reasons people go on vacations to tropical locations is to, you know, soak up some sun. If going to a tanning salon beforehand helps you sunbathe and tan without burning, is it really irresponsible to do so because it could elevate your lifetime risk of developing skin cancer by around a factor of 2, tops?

Most people who use tanning salons probably put themselves at more risk of death or disease by the amount of refined sugar or saturated fat or alcohol they consume, or the amount of exercise they get (or don't get). God help the suntanner who rides a motorcycle and has a low fiber, high fat diet.

People make countless choices that put them in far more danger for reasons just as trivial as a tan. I spend a lot of time backcountry skiing. This increases my chance of dying in an avalanche from essentially zero to roughly the same as dying in a car accident. In my case, I'm probably much more likely to die in an avalanche than a car because I don't drive. I certainly don't need to do this, I just enjoy it. Am I insane because I like to ski where avalanches are always a possibility? Is this something no one should ever do? It's a lot more dangerous than tanning, that's for certain. I do what I can to mitigate that risk, but utimately, that's all you can do: balance risk with reward.

I think what this boils down to are preferences: what people enjoy and what risks they are willing to balance with their enjoyment. I don't think anyone can answer this question with absolutes.

If you solely want to protect yourself from UV exposure, tanning beds won't help, but if you want to tan while you're there, it will probably help to start off with a fake-n-bake.

Never go to a tanning salon. Period. I can't believe these places still exist. You're not likely to develop a "base tan" anyway since you are very fair. It's not likely you will build up a tolerance to UV rays by visiting a tanning salon. You'll most likely make your freckles, if you have them, more pronounced, not to mention subject your nice skin to harmful rays that cause cancer. I'm not trying to be preachy, but tanning salons are just as bad a cigarettes.

This position is basically completely risk averse, probably because it is held by someone who doesn't find any value in tanning. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you actually desire to tan and you believe this, you are either wildly overestimating the risks involved, or too terrified of death to live.

Caddis had the best advice as far as I am concerned:

From a purely risk averse perspective you would avoid all UV rays by avoiding the salon and avoiding the sun in Cabo, either with umbrellas or sunscreen or both. Some people basically don't tan, at least not very much, and if this is you the tanning salon won't help. If you can tan, but just need to take it easy, then the tanning salon might provide an extra ounce of insurance against a bad burn which could spoil your vacation. You are going to get a lot of answers based upon peoples own prejudices for or against tanning. Only you can really decide what is right for you.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:30 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


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