sun tanning myths exposed

Helen Garston

A deep, golden tan might make us feel healthier, but at best it ages us and at worst, increases our high risk skin cancer. So is there any way to get a safe tan? Helen Garston reports.

Time was when the benchmark of a successful holiday was how dark our tan was when we returned home. Then, just as smoking became linked to lung cancer, sun exposure was found to cause skin cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, just a short burst of sunburn in early adulthood could have repercussions years later. The rich and famous aren’t immune either: Hollywood star Hugh Jackman has talked openly about how he has had five cancerous growths removed from his nose in the last few years.

There are three types of skin cancer: basal-cell skin cancer, squamous-cell skin cancer and melanoma. The latter is the most aggressive and rates have increased over the past decade faster than any other cancer.


“Around 15,500 new cases are diagnosed each year. Since the 1990s, incidents have more than doubled,” says Rachel Orritt, health information officer for Cancer Research UK.

Yet still we yearn for that bronzed look. So is there any way of tanning safely? Here, we dispel the myths…

Can you ever get a safe sun tan?

Unfortunately not, says consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth. “Any burning is a sign that skin cells have been damaged and should be avoided at all costs,” she says. “Just five episodes of sunburn can almost double your risk of skin cancer.”

She adds: “The colour change that occurs in our skin with sun exposure is due to the production of melanin which acts to absorb UV rays. This could otherwise cause damage to the DNA of our skin cells.”

She says there are two phases to the colour change – the immediate darkening and the tan that develops after a few days. People who have naturally dark skin have a higher amount of melanin and greater natural protection against the sun and will tan more easily, whilst those with light skin may burn.

But what about our need for Vitamin D, which our body makes from the sun’s UV rays and is essential for healthy bones and skin?  “It’s important to get some Vitamin D but this does not mean lying out in the sun all day,” Dr Wedgeworth says.

Most of us will get enough vitamin D with 10-20 minutes of sun exposure on the face and arms. People with darker skin may require longer. If your skin starts changing colour, you’ve had enough.



Are sun beds ever safe?

Dr Wedgeworth says: “No, never ever ever! Indoor tanning has been shown to significantly increase your risk of skin cancer, as well as causing premature ageing, so just don’t use them.”

And let’s not forget that it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to use a sun bed since the Sun beds (Regulation) Act came into force in England and Wales in 2011.


Can fake tan protect your skin?

Fake tans often contain some sunscreen but they won’t give you protection for long.

Dr Wedgeworth says: “Fake tan usually contains a chemical known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

“This reacts with the keratin layer on the outside of your skin and produces a brown pigment. It’s harmless but it won’t actually protective against sun damage, so it’s important to protect your self by using sun screen.”

DHA is generally considered safe although it may irritate some people’s skin and there are some concerns about inhaling it if you are using a spray tan. Always make sure you’re in a well ventilated room and that you cover your eyes, mouth and nose when spraying it.


Can the diet supplement Beta-carotene help you tan?

This is a natural pigment which gives many fruit and vegetables, such as carrots and pumpkins, their colour. Dr Wedgeworth says: “There is currently no good evidence that any oral tablets can help tan more safely.

“Beta-carotene taken in enough concentrations can give the skin an orangey-yellowy hue. It’s also thought to have anti-oxidant properties but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it to protect against sun damage.”


It is sometime recommended as a treatment for people who have erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare genetic condition that causes painful sun sensitivity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is useful in  protecting against UV exposure for people who don’t have the condition.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult their doctor before taking these supplements.

Supplements containing canthaxanthin have been known to cause diarrhea,  nausea, skin itching and a build up of crystals in the eyes. They are banned in the USA.


The Verdict: fake not bake!

Dr Wedgeworth says: “Regardless of skin type, regular sun seeking behaviour will result in premature ageing and is likely to increase the risk of skin cancer. Avoid trying to change your skin tone – either embrace your natural colour or fake a tan.”

How to stay safe in the sun:

Cancer Research UK and the British Association of Dermatologists recommends using recommend:

  • Stay out of the sun and in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
  • Cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
  • Use a sunscreen with a protection level of at least SPF30 and 4 stars. Use it generously and reapply regularly.


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