Debunking The ‘Base Tan’ Myth



Chances are, if you’ve planned a vacation getaway and thought about the bronzed glow you’d get from laying out on the beach, you’ve contemplated first getting a “base tan.” We’re not sure when base tans first gained their popularity or how the rumor started, but the myth goes something like this: If you get a base tan prior to a full vacation of laying out, you won’t burn. How do you get said “base tan” before hitting the beach, you ask? There’s a good chance this will be done at a tanning salon, unless you’re able to sun yourself outdoors at home. To get the 411 on the base tan and whether this truly does prevent burning, we turned to NYC Dermatologist, Maryann Mikhail of Spring Street Dermatology.

“A base tan is not a safe tan!  This is a common misconception that tanning the skin is somehow protective from sunburn,” says Mikhail.

“The reason for this misconception is that a “base tan” affords an SPF (sun protection factor) of 3 or less.  This means that if a person normally burns after 15 minutes of sun exposure, it will take 45 minutes for them to burn with a base tan.  However, the truth is that the tan itself is the body’s response to injury from UV radiation.”

According to Mikhail, a tan is definitely not a healthy glow. “When the skin darkens, it is a signal that damage has already occurred to the DNA in skin cells. The skin actually darkens to prevent more damage, but once the tan is there, it is too late.  Repeated exposure to UV radiation, whether from the sun or a tanning bed, increases your risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.”

So there you have it—tanned skin is actually your skin crying out for help—not really the bronzed beauty look we hope for, right? The worst of it lies in the form of tanning beds. “Tanning beds contain predominately UVA radiation. UVA does not burn skin as fast as UVB radiation, but it penetrates more deeply and causes irreversible skin aging as well as skin cancer,” says Mikhail. So what to do?

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If laying out and hitting the tanning salon is dangerous and causes premature aging, how do we get a summer glow? Easy—have you met sunless tanners? “For those who really want the tan look, I would recommend sunless tanner over UV exposure, but like anything – moderation is key,” says Mikhail.

However, Mikhail warns that spray tans (the kind you get at the salon) could potentially cause harm in ways regular tanning does not: “Spray tans and self tanners create the “sun kissed” look without harmful UV exposure.  The main ingredient, a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, is an additive that colors the outer layer of skin. There have been some reports saying that dihydroxyacetone may be carcinogenic, especially when inhaled, so protective measures should be taken to avoid contact with mucous membranes (eyes/ nose/ lips) and ensure that a person does not breathe it in.” To avoid inhaling the chemicals from spray tans, try sunless tanning lotions/mousse instead. Many products out on the market now give you a gorgeous glow that looks anything but orange.

We recommend: St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse ($18), Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Mousse (12.99), and Bare Minerals Faux Tan Body Sunless Tanner ($26).

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