Aug. 18, 2013 at 10:01 AM ET
Think a base tan will save you from getting sunburned the next time you hit the beach? Think again: People who get some color before a sunny vacation are more likely to get sunburned than people who don't tan beforehand, according to a new study recently published in the journal Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine.
Researchers looked at 163 college students who had gone on sunny spring break trips. The ones who had tanned indoors before their vacations were more likely to return home with a sunburn -- even though about 12 percent of the people who hit tanning salons said they did so in order to "prep" their skin for the sun.
Many people think that a base tan will protect them from both sunburns and skin cancer, says study co-author John Lowe, MPH, PhD, head of the School of Health and Sports Sciences at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.
As far as skin cancer protection goes, the theory is totally bogus. When your skin starts to change color, that's a sign that harmful UVB rays have already damaged the DNA in your skin cells. DNA damage causes cell mutations that can, in some cases, grow and multiply into skin cancer. Tanning to protect yourself from skin cancer is like smoking to protect yourself from lung cancer -- it doesn't make sense.
As for protection against sunburn, though -- it's not as crazy as it sounds. That base tan color change is a sign that your skin has produced some melanin, which can help filter some of the sun's rays. But it would offer at best an SPF of 4 (essentially: nothing useful), and won't shield you from the sun's carcinogenic effects or premature aging, says Lowe.
What's more, base tans also tend to offer a false sense of safety, making you think it's OK to spend extra time in the sun or slack off on sunscreen -- which leads to more sun damage (and more sunburns), say the study authors.
The Bottom Line: While sun-kissed skin might not burn quite as quickly as skin that's super pale, it's not a legitimate protection against sunburn-causing UVB rays. And, even worse, it's a sign that you've already caused damage to your DNA. The only real way to avoid getting sunburns and to keep your skin safe is to avoid tanning beds and wear sunscreen when you're outside. It also helps to wear a wide-brim hat and stay in the shade when you can, says Lowe.
And if you don't want to settle for pasty skin? That's what self-tanner is for.
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