Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun.
Whether you choose to bask in the sun on your weeklong holiday or you’ve booked a one-off sunbed session, getting a tan is still a regular fixture in many people's beauty routines. Despite the warnings from dermatologists and, crucially, the rise in melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer, the incidence of which is projected to increase by 9% by 2040, according to Cancer Research UK), the desire for bronzed skin endures — even when we know the risks of tanning are all too real.
Brighton and Sussex Medical School estimates that around 86% of all skin cancers in the UK are linked to overexposure to sunlight. Sunbeds — which are now illegal in parts of the world, like Australia, but still open for business and popular in places such as the UK and the US — are the second most important cause of skin cancer, it says. According to a 2022 survey conducted by Melanoma Focus, around a third of UK-based adults admit to using sunbeds at least once in their lifetime, despite 79% of respondents saying they were aware of the skin cancer risks beforehand. The American Academy of Dermatology Association reports that, though the numbers have been decreasing in recent years, approximately 7.8 million adults in the US still engage in indoor tanning. A study published in the medical journal Cancers stated that using tanning beds before age 20 can increase your chance of developing melanoma (which can spread to other parts of the body) by 47%.
The misconceptions and false information surrounding tanning make it all the more dangerous. Even fake tan has a black mark against its name, with naysayers claiming it to be bad for your skin. If tanning still feels like a grey area in your otherwise well-researched beauty routine, we asked experts and dermatologists to help us uncover some of the biggest tanning myths.
Myth: As long as you don’t burn, sunbathing is safe.
Picture this: you’re lounging in the sun with a beach read, telling yourself that another hour spent horizontal is totally fine — just as long as you don’t go red. The truth is that even if you don’t burn, sunbathing isn’t safe. A tan is a mechanism developed by the skin to prevent damage from UV exposure but it still exposes you to harmful UV rays from the sun, says Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson.
"There are actually two processes in play: the first occurs within four hours of exposure to UVA [rays which are responsible for premature ageing] in which there is oxidation of melanin already present in the skin; this is called immediate tanning and is responsible for the darkening of the skin that follows immediate sun exposure," Dr Phillips explains. "The second process occurs within 24 to 48 hours of exposure to UVB [responsible for sunburn] and involves increased production of the pigment melanin, which absorbs UV radiation, protecting skin cells from damage."
The issue is that during immediate and delayed tanning, UV exposure can harm skin cells and proteins (like elastin and collagen), contributing to skin ageing and increasing your risk of skin cancer. This means you’re at risk whether you burn or not.
Myth: Getting a 'base tan' is good for you.
The notion of achieving a 'base tan' — going on a sunbed or sitting out in the sun to prime your skin for prolonged sun exposure and help you tan better — is something that people have bought into for years. But it’s a dangerous fallacy, warns Dr Phillips. "Pre-holiday UV exposure with sunbeds exposes unprotected skin to high-intensity UV radiation, causing damage to skin cells, promoting skin ageing and increasing the risk of skin cancer such as melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma," he says. That goes for all skin tones.
As for your dermis (the inner layer of your two main layers of skin), the 'base tan' myth can contribute even further to premature skin ageing, says Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. Dr Mahto warns that UV light has been shown to activate enzymes which break down collagen and damage the skin’s support structure, making it sag or deepening wrinkles. "The enzymes also have the ability to prevent new collagen production," she tells R29.
Myth: Fake tan isn’t safe for skin.
The main ingredient in self-tan — a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA — has faced scrutiny in the past but it is considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when externally applied on skin. "DHA is a sugar-based compound," explains tanning expert Michaella Bolder. "When applied to a warm surface with amino acids, like the surface of skin, a colour change reaction occurs without penetrating the skin." Dr Phillips and Dr Mahto agree that DHA is unlikely to be harmful to your skin but suggest favouring products derived from natural sources of DHA (e.g. cane sugar or beet sugar) over those containing synthetic DHA, which could irritate the skin.
It’s also important to note that fake tan does not protect you from UV radiation in any way. Even if you are wearing fake tan, protecting yourself from the sun is a must. The NHS suggests using a high-factor, broad-spectrum sunscreen and reapplying regularly, seeking shade and wearing protective clothing.
Myth: Tanning improves skin conditions.
Sunlight has been touted anecdotally to help skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne but countless dermatologists say it’s not worth the risk. "Some people find that their psoriasis or acne improves in warmer weather but this doesn’t mean that sunbeds are the answer, as they are unsafe and increase your risk of skin cancer," says Dr Thivi Maruthappu, a consultant dermatologist and nutritionist. "Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the skin, and while exposure to sunlight can help relieve symptoms, it is not a cure for the condition," adds Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, medical consultant, skin expert and founder of the award-winning Adonia Medical Clinic. You can opt instead for a medical light treatment known as phototherapy to treat psoriasis. This approach is carefully regulated and only used under medical supervision.
Sun exposure as an acne treatment is also a misconception. "Spending time in the sun is not good for breakouts," says Dr Ejikeme. "In fact, exposure to the sun can worsen acne by causing inflammation and skin damage. There is no evidence to suggest that spending time in the sun can be beneficial for breakouts." Instead, treat acne by starting with a simple and effective skincare routine including retinol, exfoliating salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, says Dr Maruthappu, or consider medical treatments if needed.
Myth: Fake tan will cause breakouts.
It’s also a myth that fake tan exacerbates acne. Some formulas may contain irritants, allergens or ingredients that could aggravate your skin but remember: this does not apply to all fake tans. Try to avoid fragranced fake-tan products and those containing comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients such as mineral oil, isopropyl myristate and octyl stearate, which may trigger breakouts, says Dr Phillips. Look out for non-comedogenic fake tan which is less likely to block pores, like St.Tropez Tan Tonic Glow Drops, which contains ingredients to curb excess sebum within the skin. Also try Tan-Luxe’s lineup of skincare meets self-tan. Then scan your bottle for beneficial ingredients you’d typically find in your skincare products, says Michaella, like niacinamide and hyaluronic acid, which will support the health of your skin while imparting a glow.
Myth: Tanning is necessary for getting vitamin D.
Getting enough vitamin D is important for bone health and the functioning of your immune system, but that’s not the whole story. "Vitamin D is produced in the skin following sun exposure, however, the sun is not the only source of vitamin D," says Dr Phillips. "It can be found in oily fish (e.g. salmon and mackerel), egg yolks, red meat and liver." He adds that you can achieve sufficient vitamin D intake through diet and supplementation (the NHS recommends a vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter) without tanning and exposing your skin to harmful UV rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, additional UV exposure over the minimum does not increase vitamin D levels but does increase your risk of skin cancer.
Myth: Indoor tanning is safer than sunbathing.
Tanning machines harness high-intensity UV radiation to impart a tan quickly. Because they tend to use UVA light in a controlled setting (such as a booth or a bed), some people are led to believe they are safer than lying in the sun, which emits both UVA and UVB rays. But it's important to know that sunbeds and tanning outside are both dangerous. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that there is a 75% increased risk of developing life-threatening melanoma from just one indoor tanning session before the age of 35.
Myth: Sunbeds help with SAD.
"Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons, usually occurring in the autumn and winter months when there is less sunlight," says Dr Ejikeme. Symptoms may include low mood, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and changes in appetite and sleep patterns. "While sunbeds emit light that can mimic natural sunlight, there is limited scientific evidence to support their use for SAD treatment," she adds. "The American Psychiatric Association instead recommends using specific types of light boxes for SAD treatment, under the supervision of a healthcare professional." Alternative treatments include counselling, medication and lifestyle changes such as exercise and healthy eating habits, Dr Ejikeme says.
Myth: You only need to apply SPF once if you’re in the sun.
Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours during sun exposure and more frequently if you are sweating or participating in water sports, says Dr Phillips. This is because sunscreen is absorbed, washed away, rubbed off and lost through sweating. "In order to get the full benefit of SPF50, you need to be applying 2mg/cm², which is equivalent to six teaspoons (or 30ml of sunscreen) per application for the average adult," he adds. Sunscreen should be a minimum of SPF30, says Dr Mahto, and you should always choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that offers protection against both UVA light (which causes premature ageing) and UVB light (which is responsible for sunburn).
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