You may hear people talk about building up a "base tan" to look their best and protect themselves from sunburns as the summer season begins. But does this provide any protection from the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) exposure? Does a base tan prevent sunburn?

Any Dermatologist will tell you that the most reliable protection against skin cancer and sunburn lies in a bottle of sunscreen, not in a tanning booth or a morning laying out on the beach. Though it is true that naturally brown skin is more protected against harmful UV rays, acquiring a tan from the sun or a tanning bed is itself a compromise to skin health. Here we discuss what suntans—from natural or artificial light—are actually doing to the skin, as well as safer ways to prepare for time spent outdoors.

The Science Behind the Tan

Getting a base bronze from the sun or tanning booth may or may not prevent you from burning, but one thing is for sure: the tan itself is a reflection of skin damage.

A tan represents the body's response to damaged DNA within skin cells. This damage occurs when we are exposed to any form of UV light without adequate protection. To prevent further injury, our body begins to produce more melanin, the pigment that gives our skin its color. This results in a darkening of the complexion—what most of us recognize as a tan.

An artificial tan from a UV tanning bed is especially damaging, and even those with naturally brown skin should wear sunscreen when outdoors and avoid tanning beds at all costs.

All About That Base?

Put simply, no acquired tan is good for the skin. So, it's best to remove the idea of a "protective base tan" from both your vocabulary and your to-do list.

There are other, safer ways to protect your skin outdoors. Simple measures include seeking the shade between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and re-applying every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating. It's also worth it to go the extra mile and sport shades, a broad-brimmed hat, and sun-protective clothing when possible.

Ultimately, you may not burn as easily after getting a base tan, but you are damaging the skin nonetheless, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer, and speeding up the aging process.

Avoid Indoor Tanning

Don't believe the hype and glamour that indoor tanning facilities use to market to consumers—young women especially. They are not safer for your skin. In fact, tanning booths can deliver 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than the sun at peak intensity. Further, tanning beds, along with UV rays directly from the sun, are definitively classified as human carcinogens by the World Health Organization.

There is no question that they hike up skin cancer risk and hasten premature aging. In fact, using a tanning bed before the age of 35 may increase one's risk of developing melanoma by a whopping 75 percent.

Speaking of safety, ditch the tanning oils, too. To protect against cancer and wrinkle-causing UV rays, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 30 or higher, with attention to reapplication every two hours.

A Tan in a Can

Tans can certainly be aesthetically pleasing. For those seeking a sun-kissed look, an array of self-tanners and bronzers are widely available today in lotion and spray forms—you can even get a professional spray at a salon. These are a much safer alternative to a UV tan. Note, however, that although they do provide that summer glow, such products do not provide protection from UV rays.

To get the best of both worlds, choose tinted SPF products. These safe sun care options are effective at protecting against the sun's rays, while simultaneously boosting radiance by adding a bit more color.

Preparing for Fun in the Sun

Since 90 percent of skin cancers and visible signs of aging come from unprotected exposure to UV rays, wearing sunscreen daily remains our primary defense, regardless of skin color. Be sure to get all exposed skin—a proper full-body application takes around two tablespoons of lotion—and be sure to reapply every two hours and after sweating or swimming.

Remember: the American Academy of Dermatology's sun care tips do not recommend a base tan as a means of protection, nor does any other legitimate medical organization. So, feel free to enjoy your life outdoors and chase that bronzed summer look for your skin, but be sure to do it in a way that keeps you safe.


  • Mona Gohara, MD

    Dr. Mona Gohara is a Connecticut-based Dermatologist and associate professor of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. She has a particular interest in skin cancer prevention and treatment for skin of color. Dr. Gohara spends a lot of time outdoors with her husband, son, and two dogs, Coco and Cleo. They all wear sunscreen.