5 Tanning (and Self-Tanning) Myths You Need To Stop Believing
Like whether getting a base tan really prevents burning.
This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.
Canadian temperatures can be unpredictable and confusing at best (from beach weather to parka weather in a week is the norm, tbh), but we all know that whether we’re indoors or outdoors, it’s pouring rain or the sun is shining, SPF is a must, day in and day out. But the unfortunate truth is that most people are still not wearing sunscreen. According to a 2017 Statistics Canada report, only “30% to 40% of adults use sunscreen or seek shade.” The reasoning behind these stats is varied and complex, of course, but the role that misinformation plays cannot be discounted. Harmful and inaccurate tanning myths, originating long before we had the information and knowledge we do today, still exist in the public consciousness. That’s why we spoke to two pros to help us set the record straight on these tanning myths, once and for all. Read on to learn how to properly and effectively protect your skin from the sun.
True or False: Getting a ‘base tan’ from a tanning bed prevents burning later on
False. This is one of the most popular tanning myths out there. But “there’s little evidence to support the idea that a base tan protects you against sunburn,” says dermatologist and founder of New York-based clinic Fifth Avenue Aesthetics, Dr. Marie Hayag. In fact, if it does offer any protection at all, it’s only the equivalent of wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 3 to 4. While this is better than nothing, no credible expert would ever recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of 4. (An SPF of at least 30 is what’s recommended by most dermatologists for daily use!)
This myth is especially problematic when you consider that most people go the ‘base tan’ route before heading on vacation, where they’re laying on the beach and exposed to the sun for even longer than usual. “The risks of long-term tanning outweigh the unproven benefits of a base tan,” says Dr. Hayag. “Most tanning beds expose people to UVA radiation, and UVA rays are longer and reach deep into the skin. Any tanning damages the skin and can increase the risk of skin cancer, especially if it is frequent or prolonged.”
True or False: Sunscreen will prevent the body from absorbing vitamin D and lead to a deficiency
False. “Studies have never found that everyday sunscreen use leads to vitamin D insufficiency,” says Dr. Hayag. In fact, when studied, people who use sunscreen daily were found to be totally capable of maintaining their vitamin D levels. “One of the explanations for this may be that no matter how much sunscreen you use or how high the SPF, some of the sun’s UV rays do reach your skin. An SPF 15 sunscreen filters out 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97% and SPF 50 filters out 98%. This leaves anywhere from 2% to 7% of solar UVB reaching your skin, even with high SPF sunscreens—and that’s if you use them perfectly.”
And the truth is that it’s much easier to get a sufficient amount of vitamin D than most people realize—or than conspiracy theorists claim. “Humans can meet the daily requirement for vitamin D through diet or vitamin supplements,” explains Dr. Hayag. “Some food products naturally contain vitamin D, while others are fortified with it, so if you’re worried about getting enough to maintain your health, have a look at your diet first. It is an easy solution and a lot healthier than sitting out in the sun.”
Dr. Hayag suggests “fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, which are especially good sources. Small amounts of vitamin D are also present in egg yolks, beef liver and cheese. Many common items, such as milk and orange juice, are fortified with vitamin D.” We could go on and on. The bottom line is that with a combination of eating the right foods and getting some protected sun exposure, your body will get all the vitamin D it needs (really!), so there’s no need to subject yourself to the many risks of unprotected sun exposure.
True or False: Tanning beds are safer than being exposed to the sun’s UV rays
False. Like, extremely false. When it comes to tanning myths, this could be one of the most dangerous. “Exposure to UV radiation [via UVA and UVB rays], regardless of its source, is linked to skin cancer and premature photoaging of the skin,” explains Dr. Hayag. “The fluorescent bulbs used in tanning beds emit both UVA and UVB, but the UVA is estimated to be about three times that of natural sunlight. And because these rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB, there is a stronger link between UVA exposure and melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer.”
At the end of the day, “UVA and UVB rays cause damage to the DNA in our skin cells. This damage is cumulative and can, over time, lead to mutations in our DNA, and these mutations are what scientists believe to be the precursor to most types of cancer,” says Dr. Hayag. So whether you’re prone to burning or tanning, in the sun or in a tanning bed, “any colour change that occurs on your skin as a result of UV exposure is a sign of DNA damage.”
True or False: Self-tanner can *also* be damaging to skin
True—but only if used incorrectly. “DHA [dihydroxyacetone, which is the active ingredient, a colour additive, used in most self-tanners], when used on its own and in very high quantities, can dehydrate the skin, which of course can lead to premature aging,” says Sophie Evans, St. Tropez’s Celebrity Skin Finishing Expert. This 2008 study found that DHA in self-tanning products introduces free radicals in the skin, a leading cause of premature aging. That being said, the study looked at DHA at concentrations of 5%, 10% and 20%, and it’s important to note that most commercial self-tanners contain 3% to 6% DHA. And the light, gradual self-tanners usually only contain 1% to 2% DHA. (“However, spray salon tanners can be up to 15% to 20%,” says Dr. Hayag.)
So while more studies are needed to better understand the effects of DHA, as long as you’re following usage directions, there’s really no need to freak out about your use of self-tanners. But there are precautions you can take to make sure you’re taking care of your skin. “I would limit UV exposure when wearing a self-tanner,” says Dr. Hayag, “because it really doesn’t provide any UV protection. So you must still wear a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen daily.” She also recommends using antioxidants, like vitamin C, as part of your skincare routine and finding a self-tanner that’s also formulated with antioxidants, to combat the effects of free radicals.
And there’s another reason to pay attention to ingredients: Evans says they also have an impact on getting streak-free results. “St.Tropez tanning products are formulated using other tanning agents alongside DHA . [This includes] Gransolve DMI, a natural ingredient to help the absorption of DHA so the colour develops quicker, and plant-based melanin pigments for zero chance of developing orange hues,” says Evans. “Formulas that work solely [based on] DHA percentage are more likely to streak and are also harder to achieve a natural colour with.” Choosing a self-tanner that simultaneously hydrates, plumps and treats skin is the key to achieving a healthy (and streak-free!) glow, while ensuring your skin is still protected. (For everything you need to know about applying self-tanner at home, make sure to check out our comprehensive guide here.)
True or False: Darker skin tones don’t need sunscreen
False. Everyone should wear sunscreen because everyone is prone to sun damage, albeit to varying degrees. That being said, we’d be remiss to not address the glaring race issues that exist within the field of dermatology and unfairly oversimplify a complex and ongoing problem.
Much of the research that’s been conducted in the field of dermatology has been, and still is, focused on white skin. In a recent analysis of dermatology textbooks, dark skin tones were found to only make up between 4% and 18% of the images in those textbooks. This sets dermatologists-to-be up for failure when it comes to being able to properly diagnose, treat and understand skin issues—including skin cancer—in dark-skinned patients, and contributes to the ongoing problem of misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis of skin conditions.
This bias is what led Malone Mukwende, a medical student at St. George’s University of London, to launch Mind the Gap, a handbook that visually presents skin conditions on darker skin. Take, for instance, melanoma, the most deadly and aggressive form of skin cancer. We know that the earlier melanoma is caught and treated, the higher a patient’s survival rate. For white patients, that survival rate is 94%, while for Black patients, it drops down to 70%, largely because it is diagnosed at a later, and often more aggressive, stage.
This brings us back to wearing sunscreen. While it is certainly true that skin cancer is possible and has been recorded in all skin tones, just how susceptible darker skin tones are to sun damage is an area that requires more research. For now, what scientists have found is that those with darker skin tones have more productive melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin), contributing to an absorption rate of UV rays that’s roughly 30% to 50% of the absorption rate of UV rays found in white skin. (Oh and, while we’re debunking myths, we should also note that while dark skin does naturally have some SPF, it’s only around SPF 13—i.e. still not the SPF 30 that dermatologists recommend wearing daily for proper sun protection).
So, are you less likely to get skin cancer if you have Black or Brown skin? Yes, it appears so (though more research is needed). But if a Black or Brown person does develop skin cancer, are they less likely to have it caught early, thus making it more dangerous and likely to spread? Also yes. So should everyone, including those with darker skin, wear sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays, especially since the system that’s currently in place to protect the health and well-being of its citizens often fails them due to dangerous and deep-rooted biases that are rampant in both the healthcare and education systems? Yup.