ASK THE EXPERT: Should I develop a "base tan" to protect myself against sunburn?

By Anne Marie McNeill, MD

Anne Marie McNeill, MD is a dermatologist with Newport Beach Dermatology and Plastic Surgery in California. Dr. McNeill is an Affiliate of the American Society for Mohs Surgery, a member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and Past President of the Orange County Dermatologic Society. Dr. McNeill is also a member of The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Amonette Circle.

Q:   After a long winter, my skin is pretty pale, and I want to get ready to spend summer outdoors. Should I start by doing some indoor tanning to develop a “base tan” to protect myself against sunburn? Or, should I acclimate my skin simply by getting a few minutes of direct sun exposure each day? Should I use a low-SPF sunscreen to prevent sunburn while trying to start a tan?

A:   In the summertime, some people prefer a tan. The problem is that ultraviolet (UV) tanning, whether from indoor tanning beds or from the sun, is harmful to the skin.  Therefore, I don’t recommend tanning at all, during the summer or any other season.

A tan is a sign of sun damage to your skin’s DNA. Skin cells respond to damage from UV rays by producing more of the pigment melanin to protect themselves from further injury. But this “base tan” provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of 3 or less, and anything under SPF 15 provides inadequate sunburn protection.

The three most common skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, are all caused by both tanning and burning. Sun damage also causes lentigines (brown spots on the skin), fine lines, leathering, sagging, and wrinkles.  Basically, most of what makes the skin look older is from UV damage, not age. Unfortunately, you cannot get a UV-induced tan without increasing your chances of having these problems later in life.

The best way to protect your skin from sunburn in summer is practicing sun safety, and that does not include a base tan. The best sun safety measures are wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses to cover your skin; seeking shade whenever you’re outdoors, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM; and wearing broad-spectrum, SPF 15+ sunscreen daily. Incorporating these habits into your daily routine will not only prevent sunburn, but will help prevent premature skin aging and reduce your lifetime chances of developing skin cancer.  

Wearing sunscreen daily may be a hard habit to develop, but it is the best way to protect your face, chest, and hands, or any area not covered by clothes. Which sunscreen is best is largely a matter of preference, as long as the product is broad-spectrum (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays) and has an SPF of 15 or higher (30 or higher for extended stays outdoors). Today, you can choose from powders to brush on, sticks to roll on, sprays, and even wipes.  I prefer mineral sunscreens (containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide), as they provide the broadest spectrum of UVA/UVB protection with the fewest chemicals. Tinted formulations go on nicely.  But as long as the sunscreen is broad spectrum, has a sufficient SPF, and you reapply it at least every two hours, you should be well protected.

If you prefer a tanned look, the only safe tans are “spray-on tans,” dihydroxyacetone (DHA)-based products that color the skin. Recent advances in DHA formulations allow easier application and a subtler, more attractive outcome. But remember, this artificial tan is in no way sun-protective, so use sunscreen along with the self-tanner. Even if the self-tanner specifically incorporates sunscreen, this protection lasts only your first couple of hours outdoors; if you stay out longer, or go out on another day, you need to apply a separate sunscreen.

If your skin looks pale after winter, you’ve done something right! It is best for your skin to preserve that look with sun-protective measures. Embrace your natural skin color and own it. Untanned skin has the best chance of staying healthy, young, and beautiful throughout your life.

Published on July 20, 2015