ASK THE EXPERT: Will getting a tan before going to a sunny environment protect me?

By Steven M. Rotter, MD

Dr. Rotter is founder and director of the Center for Skin Surgery at the Skin Cancer Outpatient Surgical Hospital, Vienna, VA.

Published in the Winter 2008 Edition of Sun & Skin News

Q: I'm going to be studying in Australia during the summer, and I'm worried about the sun. I'm extremely pale, I burn easily and my skin never tans. I'm considering visiting a tanning salon a few times before my trip so that I can condition my skin a little for the Australian sun. Will this decrease my chances of getting skin cancer?

A: Your question is an excellent one. I often get asked that same question from fair-skinned individuals who want to get a "base" tan before a vacation. The short answer is do not get in a tanning bed!

A suntan or sunbed tan usually provides a maximum SPF (sun protection factor) of 4, which means you would take four times longer to burn than if you had no tan. If you would normally burn after 15 minutes of sun exposure, with a tan you would burn in one hour, or four times 15 minutes. However, to even get a tan you need to damage your skin: a tan is the body's response to damaged DNA in the skin cells — the skin darkens in order to prevent more damage, but the person's risk of skin cancer is already increased. So there is no such thing as a "safe" or "healthy" tan. Since sunburns are also associated with higher risks of skin cancer, especially melanoma, avoid both tans and sunburns.

Tanning beds also contain a lot of UVA radiation. The UVA radiation does not burn the skin as fast as UVB radiation, but it penetrates deeper into the skin and causes irreversible skin aging — loss of elasticity, sagging, wrinkles, brown spots and more. In addition, UVA, like UVB, can cause skin cancer. So there is no safe tan.

The bottom line is, do not try to get a tan. Instead, follow these tips:

  • Apply a full ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher 30 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Use a sunscreen that also contains good UVA protection. Sunscreens with UVA protection are labeled broad spectrum, multi spectrum or UVA/UVB protection, and contain ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone or Mexoryl™ SX (ecamsule).
  • Wear protective clothing, such as wraparound UV-blocking sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats and tightly woven, dark- or bright-colored clothes. Long sleeves and long pants such as jeans are always a good idea.
  • Seek the shade between 10AM and 4PM, when the sun is strongest.