Is there a safe way to tan?

As the sun starts to shine Dr Unnati Desai provides advice on how to stay safe in the sun

Sun exposure can have a few health benefits such as increasing vitamin D levels, improving mental health and improving certain medical conditions, like psoriasis. The main reason people expose themselves to the sun is that most people consider tanned skin to be beautiful, with a perception of looking healthy.

Tanned skin is in fact a sign that the skin has been exposed to too much ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Tanning is the body’s way of trying to protect the genetic material (DNA) in our skin cells from this radiation.

Melanin is a natural pigment in our skin cells that gives your skin its tanned appearance. It offers protection from UV-induced damage by providing a shielding effect that scatters UVR. It also provides an absorbent layer that decreases penetration of UVR into the deeper layers of the skin.

Ultraviolet radiation

There are three types of UVR that differ in their ability to penetrate the skin and the extent in which they cause biological changes:

  1. UVA causes skin ageing. It penetrates deep into the skin layers, resulting in the immediate tanning effect as well as premature. This is due to damage to the elastin and collagen in the skin
  2. UVB causes skin burning. It penetrates to the superficial skin layers only, resulting in redness and delayed tanning/burning. UVB radiation is strongest in the summer months (April-October) and between the hours of 11:00-15:00
  3. UVC is the strongest and most harmful, but it cannot penetrate the ozone layer to reach the earth’s surface.

Damage to skin cellular DNA results in the loss of control in how and when a cell grows and divides, increasing the chances of skin cancers. Children’s skin is more susceptible to damage.

UVB significantly promotes the development of skin cancers. However, studies have shown that UVA also enhances their development. A single sunburn or use of a tanning bed increases the risk of developing skin cancer exponentially. Excessive UVR exposure causes approximately 90% of all skin cancers. This means that they are almost entirely preventable.

How to stay safe in the sun

When exposed to the sun, there are a few recommendations to keep yourself as safe as possible.

Use a high factor, broad spectrum sunscreen
SPF 30–50 protects from UVB and a star rating of 4-5 protects from UVA. Apply from head to toe and don’t forget your lips.

Apply sunscreen often and enough
You should apply generous amounts of sunscreen all over the body every 2 hours. This should be reapplied after sweating or swimming — there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen.

Avoid the midday sun
Stay out of the sun between 11:00–15:00 (10:00–16:00 near the equator) when the UV rays are at their peak. Early morning or late evening sun exposure is safer.

Wear loose clothing
You should wear loose fitting clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible. This includes long sleeved tops, trousers, sarongs and long skirts. Avoid v-necks that expose the decolletage.

Wear a hat
Wide brimmed hats are best to protect the scalp, face, neck and ears

Put on sunglasses
Excess sun exposure can increase the risk of cataracts forming. Sunglasses with a filtered lenses and wrap around style provide the best protection for your eyes.

Keep moving
Ensure that no area of your skin has prolonged exposure to the sun

Never use tanning beds
Tanning beds emit 2–5 times more UVA radiation than the sun. Just a few minutes under a tanning bed can cause the same amount of skin damage as spending several hours in the midday sun with no sunscreen.

Last updated Tuesday 21 June 2022

First published on Friday 6 May 2016