Is it possible to sun tan safely?
July 22, 2011 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to sun tan safely?

One of my goals in sun tanning will be to prevent future sun burns, I hear that regularly suntanning and building up a good tan can prevent sun burn?

But my high school biology teacher told me that any sun tan is skin damage, and that any skin damage is harmful to your skin.

Will any sun tan increase my likelihood of skin cancer? But maybe even so, maybe it will protect me from sun burn enough that the total net balance would be a protective effect from skin cancer?

So is it possible to safely build a strong tan? And if so, how do I do it?

I'm looking for more exact or elite information, I know you slowly increase time exposed to sun daily, but anything more specific than that?

Thanks a lot!

p.s. I live in an environment that is sunny year round, and I'm looking for a long term sun tan ( several years )
posted by crawltopslow to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
No, you can't tan safely at all. There is no elite information that will tell you otherwise.
posted by tel3path at 9:29 AM on July 22, 2011 [9 favorites]

Not only is tanning harmful for your skin, it offers little protection against a sunburn.
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Exposure to sunlight does aid in synthesis of vitamin D, but tanning itself is a sign of damage to your skin. I just saw this yesterday, and it's a really great synopsis of what exactly goes on with tans, burns and sunscreen.
posted by goggie at 9:42 AM on July 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might find this post from Mark's Daily Apple informative. It's not so much about tanning (tan = skin damage) as about getting vitamin D, by being in the sun without sunscreen, without sunburn.
posted by telegraph at 9:51 AM on July 22, 2011

Some evidence shows that tanning itself is a response to damage to your DNA. If you have a suntan, it means that you have already increased your risk of skin cancer. There is no safe suntan.
posted by grouse at 9:54 AM on July 22, 2011

Not only do you increase your cancer risk, you old up real quick, too. Aggressive tanning now will make your skin wrinkled and leathery in ten years.

If your goal is to prevent sunburn, and you've never built up much of a tan before (think back to your childhood - how tan did you get playing outside in the summer, and how many sunburns did you get?), I'm guessing your skin burns a lot more easily than it tans. If that's the case, you're going to find it pretty much impossible to get any sort of tan, however you go about it. You're just going to burn, a lot.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:59 AM on July 22, 2011

There's an injectable peptide drug known colloquially as Melanotan, which stimulates melanin production, yielding a deeper tan without additional UV exposure. The resultant tan has some degree of photoprotective effect against further UV DNA damage.

(It also enables people with fair skin who burn really easily to get deep natural tans -- pretty awesome.)

Yes, staying indoors 24 hours a day is much safer from a skin cancer perspective, but some of us live in the real world. :)
posted by trevyn at 10:33 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have a look at the "The Sunscreen Smokescreen" - great infographic via the article goggie linked to above.

If you look at the bottom then there is an implication that staying in the sun for up to 20 minutes - without any sunscreen - has a net benefit because of your body's need for vitamin D. But the tanning part of this is still bad for you - so the short answer to your question is still "No".

I suspect there is probably some psychological benefit to be had from the attention of friends who react to your tanned state by telling you stuff like "you look really relaxed and healthy - I bet you had a great holiday - tell me all about it!" Not properly researched as far as I know.
posted by rongorongo at 10:37 AM on July 22, 2011

Actually, re Melanotan: "Skin tanning appears possible without potentially harmful exposure to ultraviolet radiation."

In practice, you will be exposed to UV whenever you go outside, and Melanotan dramatically accelerates the tanning that results from any UV exposure. As a result, most people using Melanotan do go and lay in the sun for short periods to trigger this accelerated melanogenesis. But it's interesting that your skin apparently will darken on Melanotan without any UV exposure.

So apparently the elite answer to this question is yes. :P
posted by trevyn at 10:42 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, staying indoors 24 hours a day is much safer from a skin cancer perspective, but some of us live in the real world. :)

Sure, and until Melanotan is available and affordable to the public (and after years of trials proving its safety, of course), those of us who live in the real world and don't want skin cancer usually use sunscreen on a daily basis.
posted by cooker girl at 10:51 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

those of us who live in the real world and don't want skin cancer usually use sunscreen on a daily basis.

A daily basis? Is this common? I use sunscreen if I'm going to be outside for any length of time, or if I'm going to be especially exposed, but I don't put it on for the day to day activities of walking to the bus stop and running out of my office to grab lunch. I'm curious how many people actually use it everyday.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:57 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use it every day, at least on my face and neck, and on my arms if I'm going to be outside for any length of time (so not usually when I go to work and sit in my office, but if I'm going to be walking around outside). And I guess on my legs too if I'm not wearing pants, but it has to be very, very hot for that.
posted by brainmouse at 11:19 AM on July 22, 2011

The above posters are correct. There is no safe tan. I wear sunscreen (in the form of SPF 15 moisturizer) every day on my face & neck. I am 40. I am told frequently I look years younger. No tanning, no smoking = great skin for decades to come :)
posted by pointystick at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is no such thing as a safe tan, but how much risk you accumulate by tanning varies by skin type. If you have type 1 skin, you will never get a tan and will always burn. Due to the rather complicated chemistry of existing sunscreens, I'd advise just wearing long shirts and pants whenever possible.

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of the biochemistry and genetics involved, this book covers melanoma in molecular detail.

Wikipedia has decent coverage of melanotan and various health agencies' efforts to discourage people from using it.
posted by benzenedream at 11:55 AM on July 22, 2011

No, tanning is horrible for your skin. If you even have to ask about how to do it properly, then you're probably the most at risk!

I'm skin type III and I wear sunscreen every day--30 or higher. It's usually spf 50 with physical blockers. I put it on first thing when I wake up, right after washing my face and putting on moisturizer. It's the best way to prevent cancer and premature aging! Even the 10 minutes you spend walking to your car and back and the 20 minutes you spend commuting will really add up in the end, so you should slather it on.
posted by 200burritos at 1:18 PM on July 22, 2011

I'm with Bulgaroktonos. How does seemingly everybody on the internet afford all this sunscreen? I've read that if people used as much as they're really supposed to, four ounces would last one person less than a week. I tried to keep up for a long while, but I'm (or have just been) a poor student and had to stop mostly, except for my moisturiser and when I'm at the beach or something. (At least I'm a skin type 5, and really good at crossing my fingers.)

In any case, no, I don't believe tanning can be safe. Just be careful.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 2:28 PM on July 22, 2011

No, it's not safe, but then few things are. Drinking isn't safe, but it's fun. Eating cheeseburgers isn't safe, but it makes us happy. Wild casual sex on the spur of the moment is incredibly unsafe but it can go down as one of the greatest experiences of your life; one that you remember with fondness and satisfaction when you're 92 and more sclerotic than erotic.

Ignore the finger-wagging worriers. They run from life, because they run from risk. Going for a bit of a tan is hardly going over the top at the Somme, now is it? If you want to get brown, you damned well go for it. Just don't get red.

If you want a tan, do it slowly. That's the ticket. Redness is a disaster. Little and often, to start with, and do apply the high factor liberally. The problem for many white people (and if you're a red-headed, paste-skinned celt, god help you) is that two weeks is nowhere near enough time to build up a solid base. Three months is better. I'm lucky: I'm dark and vaguely Mediterranean so a few careful days with the factor 30 usually sees me right. But whenever I've been going for a prolonged stay in the sunny areas of the world I've done my best to build up that base in advance. Even going so far as to have a few sessions on the sunbed. You say you live in a sunny place - bingo, you're sorted. Just use the sun you live with and do not rush your tan. Little and often. That's the ticket.

Whether you do that or not, the whole trick is to build up slowly. Do not spend more than an hour in the sun on your first couple of days, and try to make that hour before 11 AM or after 4:00 PM. Use mositurising lotion afterwards. Monitor yourself... first sign of redness or tenderness, do not expose that piece of your body until it stops being red and sore. But really, if you go for the slow and steady approach, the aim is never to have that redness and soreness. If you get that, you're doing it wrong.

Enjoy your heliophilia, and stick your tongue out at the miserable melano-marks.
posted by Decani at 3:04 PM on July 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Everyone above has covered the risks, so I'll pass on this elite tip for tanning: make sure to monitor your skin for dangerous developments!

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are extremely common (among many populations), seem to be almost entirely sun-related, and are highly treatable if diagnosed early. Melanomas are slightly less sun-determined, much more serious, and critical to diagnose and treat ASAP.

If you tan or if you have a history of burns (and certainly if you have any strange persistent spots), make sure to get regular dermatological checkups.
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 3:08 PM on July 22, 2011

Enjoy your heliophilia, and stick your tongue out at the miserable melano-marks.

Note, this comes from an Englishman, where the sun has roughly the same strength as the lamp I read by before going to bed.

Take it from an Australian - we have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. Two out of three Australians will get skin cancer by 70 - the only safe tan comes out of a bottle or a spray nozzle.

Also, people who spend a lot of time in the sun look like they're made out of beef jerky by about 45. Don't become a statistic!
posted by smoke at 5:24 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just want to second the looking out for suspicious growths contingent. If you are going to be tanning please be careful and visit the dermatologist often. I am a religious sunscreen wearer/indoor job haver and I have quite a few scars from removals. Just know that more sun=more surgeries/scars unless you want to put it off until things get deadly.
posted by boobjob at 5:34 PM on July 22, 2011

Oh god, I am so with decani above, whose comment I favorited with much joy.

I live in a shitty, gray-skied area of the world for 9 months of the year. In June, July, and August? You bet your ass I'm out there (just got back from 6 hours laying on the beach in a heat advisory).

Now. IANAD, but those of us with dark hair and brown eyes, regardless of natural skin tone (mine is naturally rather fair) are far less likely to develop sun-related skin cancer than our green/blue-eyed, blond brethren who have indulged in equally unprotected sun exposure.

People who live in very humid-heat-type climates (i.e. East Coast, lots of the Northeastern and Southern US) are going to wrinkle less than people who live in dry, sun-baked climates (AZ, NM). Moisture is key.

Now mind you, I would rather swim to Canada than visit a tanning bed. Never done it, never will, you should stay far the hell away. The real sun, though? It's there for a reason. Never once have I come back inside out of the sun without feeling completely wonderful. I find it worth it, frankly. No, it's not "safe," but as decani pointed out, what is?

And as far as "looking like beef jerky..." well, there isn't enough sun here to do that to me if I was 65, let alone 45. YMMV.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 6:33 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dad was born in LA in 1930, when the advice was "give the baby lots of sun". My grandmother loved being near bodies of water(one of her stipulations for moving to a new home in the 50's was for one where she could have a pool built), so they went to the beach often.

For as long as I can remember, he has had to get about ten carcinomas removed each year....he still goes to the beach, but wears a floppy hat and sunscreen.

Those who freckle are being told by their bodies that they can't handle being in the sun.

I think one of the reasons why I still get carded at 43 is because I never fried myself at the beach or in a tanning bed.
posted by brujita at 7:52 PM on July 22, 2011

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