No, a 'base tan' doesn't prevent sun damage

That's because technically, a base tan itself is a sign of sun damage.

WASHINGTON — We’re just about a week out from the unofficial start of summer; before you spend your days lounging poolside, you might consider reintroducing your skin to the sunshine with a “base tan.”

Could a little extra sun also help you fight off sun damage?


Does a so-called “base tan” actually prevent sun damage? 



No–because that’s ignoring what a base tan really is.


Our experts all agree– a base tan actually is sun damage.

“Any time you're exposed to light, you're accumulating some form of damage,” said Dr. Allison Larson, chair of dermatology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Melanin, the pigment in your skin, is sent to the surface to protect your cells from further harm, explains MD Anderson Cancer Center online. 

"Any type of tanning on the skin is evidence of DNA damage,” said Dr. Kathleen Ellison, US Dermatology Partners. “It's a misconception that tanned bronzed skin is healthy skin and actually evidence that your skin needs a little bit more protection and might be at risk for skin cancer." 

Our experts explain that while this skin darkening could help your skin play defense against sun burn, not by much—several of our sources cite research showing that going out in the sun with a base tan is the equivalent of wearing SPF four at most. Most experts recommend wearing at least SPF 30 to prevent damage now–and down the line.

“We can find skin cancer even in patients who haven't experienced things like sunburn, simply because exposure to the sun without using sun protection can give you a risk for skin cancer in the future,” said Dr. Ellison.

Even people with naturally darker skin tones or who don't burn easily can get sun damage–like wrinkles or spots—and even skin cancer.

"If somebody does have a darker skin, whether that is through tanning or whether that is their genetic gift, they will be less likely to burn, but the problem with getting that tan externally when it is not your genetic gift is that you're accumulating damage during that time. And so even though maybe you're not going on to sunburn later, you're still accumulating damage that goes on to cause cancer," said Dr. Larson. "So we encourage everyone to sun protect."

“Unfortunately, the mortality rates are disproportionately high in our patients with more skin color simply because their skin cancers can be found at a more advanced stage,” added Dr. Ellison.

Sunless tanners, like spray tans or at-home lotions, are healthier options for a “base tan” if you’re just looking for a pre-summer glow–but don’t skip the sunscreen, as they also don’t replace wearing SPF.

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