Can Getting a “Base Tan” Protect You From Sunburn and Skin Cancer?

March 30, 2023
ASCO Staff

Have you ever wondered whether getting a tan before a vacation or ahead of summertime could protect you from sunburn later on? Or, maybe you’ve considered tanning indoors so that you’d have a tan while on a trip. This concept of getting a tan before spending more planned time in the sun is commonly referred to as getting a “base tan.”

Here, learn more about what base tans are, why they are more harmful than protective, and how you can keep your skin safe in the sun on your next vacation and all year long.

What is a base tan?

There is no scientific definition of a base tan, but people typically use the term to loosely refer to getting a tan before further sun exposure. To get a base tan, some people may expose their skin to the sun directly by sunbathing outside. Others may use a tanning bed or lights, also called indoor tanning.

Both the sun and indoor tanning give off 2 types of harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that affect your skin: ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which can pass through glass, and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which cannot. Exposure to either kind of UV radiation can lead to skin cancer.

When you expose your skin to UV radiation, either by direct sun exposure or through indoor tanning, skin cells called melanocytes produce melanin to protect your skin from these dangerous rays. The melanin is what gives your skin a darker color or tan. However, melanin does not adequately protect your skin from sunburn. And, exposing yourself to this UV radiation causes long-term damage, including an increased risk of skin cancer and premature aging.

“It is a misconception that tanned skin is healthy skin. Tanned skin is, in fact, damaged skin! There is no safe way to expose yourself to UV radiation, whether with sun exposure or with tanning beds. Choosing to avoid tanning is choosing to lower your risk of developing skin cancer." – Katy K. Tsai, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the 2023 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Melanoma & Skin Cancer

What research has been done on base tans?

The dangers of tanning are clear. Decades of studies have shown that direct, unprotected exposure to UV radiation from the sun or indoor tanning increases your risk for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. In fact, UV radiation is categorized as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the World Health Organization.

However, it is difficult to find studies specifically examining the effects of base tans. Shadmehr (Shawn) Demehri, MD, PhD, a dermatologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, says the base tan probably hasn’t been studied because UV radiation is already a known carcinogen, with harmful rather than protective effects.

In other words, there is no reason to believe that exposing yourself to UV radiation and its harmful effects by getting a base tan could protect you from subsequent exposure to that same radiation. And, it is important to remember that no tan is a healthy tan, including base tans.

“Sun protection is the most important step to prevent skin cancer. Any form of direct sun or UV exposure can have harmful effects that can manifest as skin cancer later in life.” – Shadmehr (Shawn) Demehri, MD, PhD, associate professor at the Center for Cancer Immunology and Cutaneous Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and the 2023 Cancer.Net Specialty Editor for Hereditary Skin Cancer Related Syndromes

Are tanning lotions or sprays dangerous?

So, if no tan is a healthy tan, what can you do if you want your skin to look more bronzed before your next vacation? Dr. Demehri says tanning lotions that you rub on your skin are a safer option than outdoor or indoor tanning. However, it’s important to note that the chemicals in these lotions are still being studied to see if they have potential health effects.

Dr. Demehri warns against using tanning lotion sprays because of what you could be inhaling into your lungs when particles are aerosolized. He says similar dangers probably exist for sunscreen sprays. If you are using a sunscreen spray, go outdoors and spray it onto your hand before applying it to areas like your face.

How can you protect your skin from the sun?

Wearing clothing and hats to protect your skin from the sun is the best defense against UV radiation. You can even find clothing and hats that list their sun protection factor (SPF). You should also wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above on any exposed skin and reapply according to the package instructions. Make sure the sunscreen is waterproof if you are going into the water or at the beach. And, remember that protecting yourself from the sun during the winter and other times of the year is also important.

When deciding on a sunscreen to use, try to find a sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which give you broader coverage than chemicals in other sunscreens, says Dr. Demehri. These 2 active ingredients are also Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective (GRASE) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Learn more about what to look for in sunscreen ingredients.

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