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Sunbathing 101: Can You Tan Without Burning? The Truth About Sunbathing and Tanning

A lot of people like sunbathing, but it can damage your skin. People often want to know how to tan quickly in the sun without burning, or if it’s even possible to tan safely at all. Let’s take a closer look and figure out what experts say about the risks of sun exposure.

Is sunbathing healthy?

Sun exposure is a risk factor for skin cancer and photoaging. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or from artificial light such as tanning beds is carcinogenic, meaning it has the potential to cause cancer, and can lead to skin disease and other health issues. That’s why health organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Skin Cancer Foundation don’t recommend sunbathing or tanning at all. It’s also highly important to take precautionary measures when exposed to the sun.

But if you are careful about protecting your skin, there are some benefits of moderate sun exposure. For example, the sun helps the body process vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones, hair, and teeth. 

However, the AAD does not recommend getting vitamin D from sun exposure or indoor tanning. Instead, they recommend getting vitamin D from a healthy diet that includes foods naturally rich in vitamin D, foods and beverages fortified with vitamin D, and/or vitamin D supplements.

Studies have also shown that exposure to sunshine helps boost the levels of serotonin in the body and positively affect mood

How to protect yourself from UV radiation and burning

Many people wonder how to tan without burning. It’s important to understand that avoiding burning doesn’t mean avoiding the harm of UV radiation, which is the main cause of skin and health issues.

Nevertheless, if you are exposed to the sun, there are ways to protect your skin from the danger of UV rays and avoid burning. 

  1. First, avoid tanning beds. These beds or stand-up booths are designed to provide intense exposure to ultraviolet rays that will cause you to tan quickly but also cause significant skin damage that can lead to skin cancer
  2. Next, select the right sunscreen. Pay attention to the SPF rating and look for a product that contains broad-spectrum protection. Try to find sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection. An SPF of 30 or higher is adequate, as it blocks up to 97 percent of the harmful ultraviolet rays. The AAD suggests applying sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside and again every two hours. This frequency may vary depending on your outdoor activity. 
  3. If you are swimming or doing an activity that makes you sweat, you will need to reapply sunscreen more often to prevent sunburn. Also, pay particular attention to areas that get less daily exposure and may be more sensitive to burning.
  4. If you are outside for a prolonged period, try to seek shade from time to time. If this is not possible, consider wearing clothing that will protect your skin from overexposure. Remember, even if you have a hat on, you can still burn on your face, ears, and neck. This is especially true if you are in, on, or near water that will reflect the sun.
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Sunburn treatment

Sunburn can be mild to severe, depending on the skin type and amount of exposure. When skin is red, painful, and warm to the touch, this is a first-degree burn. Cold compresses applied to the warm areas, pain relievers, moisturizer, and drinking plenty of water may be able to ease the discomfort of a first-degree sunburn.  

If the skin blisters, this is considered a second-degree burn. Do not try to pop these blisters. This can make the area more susceptible to infection and additional skin damage. To treat this type of sunburn, do the same things that are recommended for a minor burn. 

You may need to wear soft, loose-fitting clothing to avoid any friction in that area, particularly at night. Hydrocortisone can help soothe areas that are burned, but avoid any products ending in “caine” like benzocaine. These products can cause an allergic reaction.

Natural sun vs. tanning beds: what’s the difference? 

Tanning beds entered the market in the 1970s and rapidly gained popularity over the following decades. Tanning beds became a convenient way for people to get a tan without having to spend hours in the sun, but they also put many people at risk for skin cancer. 

Natural suntanning can also lead to skin cancer if skin is not adequately protected from overexposure. Experts recommend wearing an SPF-30 sunscreen or higher when outdoors. While using a tanning bed, people rarely wear sunscreen and many wear tan accelerators to maximize their color, which can increase the potential harm.

Pro tips for sun protection

It’s common to want to know how to tan safely. But the truth is that there is no safe way to tan using any kind of UV exposure, outside or in a tanning bed. Many health organizations, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, recommend avoiding tanning and sunbathing. 

When you’re outside in the sun, make sure to follow these precautionary tips, including some recommendations from the Skin Cancer Foundation: 

  1. For extended outdoor activity,  always apply a water-resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher 15 minutes before going outside.
  2. Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.
  3. If you notice that your skin is getting red, cover up that area or go inside.
  4. Try to avoid getting sunburned. If you do get sunburned, avoid the sun as much as possible until it heals.
  5. Remember to apply sunscreen to your lips as well.
  6. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage.
  7. Try to avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and seek the shade, especially between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

In general, make sure to use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day, even if the weather is cloudy or you don’t plan to be outside for long. Many brands of makeup contain sunscreen, and using one of these can make it easier to remember to put on sunscreen every day.

Make sure to check any pigmentation spots and moles regularly. If they start growing rapidly, changing shape, itching, or coming off, be sure to consult a health care provider.

Sunbathing risks

Natural sunbathing and tanning beds are bad for the health of your skin. UVA rays cause skin to darken and melanin in skin to oxidize, providing slight protection to the underlying layers of skin. However, UVA rays can also reach deeper into the layers of your skin, ultimately causing damage. Every time you go outside or use an indoor tanning bed, skin is exposed to damaging UV rays. Not only can this cause premature skin aging, it also increases the risk of getting skin cancer, including melanoma.

UVB rays are responsible for sunburn. This burning is primarily limited to the superficial layers of the skin. Exposure to this type of ultraviolet radiation can also contribute to skin tanning, premature aging, and the possibility of developing skin cancer.

It is vital to protect your skin whenever you’re outside for extended periods and to seek other means of protection, like shade, whenever possible. To defend your skin from the damaging effects of the sun, always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and look for beauty products that also contain sunscreen. This will allow you to spend time outdoors while helping prevent damage to your skin that could lead to premature aging and skin cancer.

Sansone, Randy A, and Lori A Sansone. “Sunshine, Serotonin, and Skin: a Partial Explanation for Seasonal Patterns in Psychopathology?” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, Matrix Medical Communications, July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3779905/.

“Sunscreen FAQs.” American Academy of Dermatology, www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs.

“Sunburn.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 July 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sunburn/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355928.

Madigan, Lauren M., and Henry W. Lim. “Tanning Beds: Impact on Health, and Recent Regulations.” Clinics in Dermatology, Elsevier, 19 May 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738081X16301523.

Reimann, Jessica, et al. “A Process Evaluation of the Skin Cancer Prevention Act (Tanning Beds): A Survey of Ontario Public Health Units.” Journal of Community Health, Springer US, 11 Apr. 2019, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10900-019-00658-1.

“UV Radiation.” The Skin Cancer Foundation, 19 June 2020, www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb.

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