How to Get a (Relatively) Safe Tan

Man Sunbathing on the beach image by Alice from

Let one thing be crystal clear: There is no such thing as a "safe" tan. By going out in the sun unprotected, you risk:

This year, 56,900 new cases of skin cancer will be reported; most of these people (not so coincidentally) don't take care of their skin when out in the sun. So how can you get a relatively safe tan?

Learn the Lingo

The first step in becoming a golden god or goddess is to learn some basic terminology.

Providing a definition of "tanning" isn't as pointless as it seems. A tan occurs when the skin absorbs ultraviolet radiation (or "UV rays"). As a response, the skin produces a substance known as melanin, which darkens the skin's outer layers. Although many believe that a tan makes us appear healthier, it is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged. It's similar to the beginning stages of a burn.

"UV index" is just a fancy term that refers to the way in which scientists measure how much ultraviolet radiation is hitting the Earth's surface at a given point in the day. UV is an invisible light that is always present, though in varying degrees. There are actually two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. They're both bad, so make sure your tanning products specify that they guard against both.

The actual index is measured from 0 to 10+, so if you're considering sunbathing, flip on the Weather Channel or check out a map and see the day's UV index. The higher the number on the index, the greater the amount of exposure you will have to ultraviolet radiation. So you must be careful of the sun on days with a high UV index. If you stay in the sun too long, you will burn and peel.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. All sunscreens are given a number ranging from 4 on up, so you'll have to determine which one is best for you. Most dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 15. However, the level of protection a person needs is usually based upon her tanning history. For example, people with pale complexions should shoot for a SPF of 30, while people with darker complexions may need a SPF of as little as 4. To be safe, it's always best to ask a pharmacist which SPF would work best for you. And since most drugstores have pharmacists, you can get this info for free.

Although most people lump sunscreen and sunblock together, they are actually very different products that are intended for different uses. Sunscreen is a cream or lotion that is SPF-rated. It reacts with the skin to create an invisible barrier against the sun. The strength of the barrier is determined by the SPF number. The lower the number, the less protection. Most sunscreens should be applied 20 minutes before you go outside so they have time to work. Using a sunscreen will not prevent you from tanning, but it will lower your risk of getting burned.

Sunblock doesn't have an SPF because it protects the body from all UV rays. Usually, sunblock is a thick cream that should contain zinc oxide (the white gunk you sometimes see people put on their noses). Here's where it gets tricky: Some sunscreens with SPF numbers of 15 or higher are erroneously referred to as sunblocks. If you want a sunblock, don't buy a package with an SPF listed, because a true sunblock won't need it.

Calculate Your Risk Factor

Since your goal is to tan but not burn, take a couple of minutes to figure out your sun risk factor.

First, determine what kind of skin you have. People with fair skin and light-colored eyes have to take extra precautions not to get burned. (Most fair people can burn within 15 minutes.) The darker you are, the more exposure to the sun you can handle without getting burned.

Next, figure out how close you live to the equator. You don't have to figure it out to the precise latitude and longitude--just know the rule of thumb that, the closer you live to the equator, the more likely you are to get sunburned.

Take care while vacationing at high altitudes. UV radiation increases about 5 percent for every 1,000 feet you go above sea level.

Make a list of all the drugs you're taking. Many medications contain chemicals that cause the skin to react differently to UV rays. For example, antibiotics, antihistamines, oral contraceptives, tricyclic antidepressants and most acne medications will cause your skin to burn rather than tan. If you think a medication you are taking may fall into one of these categories, use a sunscreen with a higher SPF. It's the safe and prudent thing to do.

Take Precautions to Prevent Sunburn

The goal here is to tan safely, but since we already know that's impossible, we can at least figure out how to avoid getting burned. There is a common myth that a sunburn will fade into a tan. This has no basis in reality. A sunburn is actually a bunch of broken blood vessels that form on top of a tan. It is especially bad to suffer from sunburns before the age of 21 since it increases your odds of skin cancer, but a sunburn at any age can have serious side effects. These effects include loss of skin moisture, loss of elasticity and the formation of sunspots on the skin. So to make sure you get a tan Frankie and Annette would be proud of, you need to take some precautions:

Consider Visiting a Tanning Salon

The process of getting a fake tan involves climbing into an enclosed chamber, where you will lie for a specified period of time. The person in charge of the tanning beds will then set a time limit for your first session. Usually, the length of the sessions is increased by two-minute intervals. Most beds are equipped with fans so you won't feel too heated. Most tanning salons start to offer bargains during the summer months (since people can go outside and do it for free).

Although this is a great way to get a tan without worrying too much about burning, there are some precautions you'll want to take:

Tanning beds are far from being skin-friendly. In fact, most health experts agree that the use of tanning beds increases a person's risk of skin cancer. When a person uses a tanning bed, more layers of the skin are damaged than when that person gets a tan from just being out in the sun. Still, if you're willing to take the risk with your skin, tanning beds do offer some benefits. You'll be able to control what kind of ultraviolet light your skin receives, you won't get sunburned, and your progress will be monitored.

Consider Applying a Self-Tanner

Fake tanners have gotten a bad rap over the years, and for good reason: They can look fake. These products, however, have gone through significant improvements in recent years. The new brands of self-tanners are virtually streak-proof, and some even come with built-in SPF. Self-tanners do not injure the skin, and you can pick out the exact shade of tan you want. Numerous options are available for self-tanners. You can choose between gels, lotions or sprays. Be careful, though. Just because your skin will be golden doesn't mean you won't burn. So keep applying that sunscreen whenever you go in the sun.

Applying a self-tanner is simple. First, you need to exfoliate. This simply means getting rid of all the dead cells on your body. This will help the tanner go on more evenly. To exfoliate, merely go to a beauty-supply or drugstore and get an exfoliation kit or loofah sponge.

Make sure your body is completely dry before applying the tanner. If there is any moisture, the tanner may come out blotchy. Find a brand that you can see going on (read: the cream itself should be colored, not clear) so you won't miss any areas.

Get a pair of surgical gloves, preferably latex; they'll help keep your hands from getting stained. If you are applying a cream, use upward strokes on the entire body, except the chest area. For the chest, horizontal strokes will help keep the coverage balanced. To avoid dark stripes, use less of the tanner on joints, such as the knees and the elbows.

Wait about 20 to 25 minutes, and you'll look like you've been sunbathing for days.