Sunscreens vs Natural Tanning
Every year at this time, the zealots come out of the woodwork promoting sunscreens. After all, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. The truth is, no one has any idea of long term toxicity risks with regards to the use of sunscreen chemicals. Worse, people slather them all over their bodies without thought to the fact that your skin is the largest organ on your body. Is it worth the long term exposure and unknown health risks with the use of Parsol 1789, Mexoryl or Methoxcinnimate (or any other chemicals)? Unless you have a form of albinism or vitaligo, you should attempt to utilize the skin’s natural tanning properties over the use of chemicals in sunscreens. The natural sunscreen that appears in the skin is melanin. Melanin is much more broad spectrum than any lab created chemical at blocking the various wavelengths of UV (other than UVC, which doesn’t reach Earth).
UVA and UVB
Sunscreens protect you mainly from UVB (think of the B to mean ‘Burn’). These rays are shorter wavelengths and only penetrate shallow skin surface layers. These are the layers that lead to burning. UVA is a much longer wavelength and is associated with deeper skin level exposure (and is thought to aid in premature aging). Sunscreens have limited ability to protect you from UVA. Note that the Sun’s natural mix of UVA and UVB (that reaches the earth) is up to 5% UVB and 95% UVA. However, during some times of the year, the UVB can slightly higher than 5% (where the UV index is at its highest). These are the times where burning is very easy.
The use of sunscreen chemicals can promote a bad burn. The reasoning is very clear. When you use these chemicals to block the sun, these chemicals prevent tanning. So, the one time you forget the sunscreen, improperly apply it or forget to reapply it, you will likely get a very bad burn. Even though many dermatologists recommend and endorse the use of sunscreens, utilizing the skin’s own tanning properties helps prevent a bad burn. Melanin works 24/7 and doesn’t need reapplication every hour or two. Although, a natural tan does wear off over several weeks if you don’t keep the tan going. On the other hand, sunscreens require frequent reapplication (probably every hour, especially if you’re in water or are sweating). The UVA chemicals actually break down rapidly (as quickly as 30 minutes depending on brand, quality and body chemistry) once applied, so you need to reapply a lot more often than you think to maintain UVA protection. The UVB chemicals also break down, but much more slowly. Having active UVB protection without UVA isn’t that helpful, though. So, you need to reapply.
The point, however, is that you want to avoid a bad burn at all costs. You want to tan and not burn. Thus, the use of sunscreens does not promote natural tanning and promotes forgetting to reapply which can then lead to accidental burns after the chemicals have stopped working. Remember that sunscreens give no warning when they have worn off. Worse, you won’t know your skin is burned until 3-6 hours after sun exposure.
Vacation and Tanning
If you will be traveling to a sunny destination, it is better to build up a natural base tan than constantly applying sunscreen every hour. You can build your tan slowly and steadily outdoors or you can do it in a tanning bed. Nothing ruins a vacation more than a bad burn, however. Having a base tan allows you to be outdoors without worrying about getting a bad burn. Yes, you can still get burned even with a tan, so you should always be cautious. But, having a base tan reduces your chance of a bad burn substantially over forgetting to apply sunscreen.
Beginning your Tan
To obtain a base tan, start the tanning process at least 6 weeks out from when you leave to go on vacation. You can do this outdoors or in a tanning bed. Note, however, that tanning beds are concentrated, but also timed. So, for example, 12 minutes in a high pressure bed is equivalent to about 2 hours outdoors. So, if you can only do about 15 minutes outdoors in midday sun, then you should start at about 6 minutes in a 12 minute bed. You would think to start at about 2-3 minutes, but 6 minutes isn’t enough to burn you in a bed in one session. Needless to say, always discuss tanning bed times with your salon professional.
Another note about tanning in a tanning bed. DO NOT USE SPF SUNSCREEN WHEN TANNING IN A TANNING BED! This is emphasized because it wastes your money. Yes, you can use low SPF to aid tanning outdoors only, but never use SPF in a bed. Even though a tanning bed mimics the UV from the sun, it isn’t the sun. It is also time controlled.. and this is very important to understand. Time controlled means that you do not need to worry about accidentally getting too much exposure. The maximum you can get in one session is equivalent to 2 hours outdoors at maximum bed time. Because the time is controlled and there’s little risk of a burn, there is no need for sunscreen. Further, using a sunscreen in a bed is a waste of money. If you spend $10-$40 per session, using SPF sunscreen completely prevents the rays from tanning you. So, you will have spent your money for nothing, literally. When using tanning beds, you are paying for access to the UV. SPF lotions prevent that UV from tanning you. Don’t do this unless you really like throwing your money away.
Reading your Skin
Understand that a burn is red and melanin is also red (initially.. and oxidises to brown). So, which is a burn and which is melanin? If there’s heat, redness and/or discomfort (followed by peeling), then it’s a burn. If you see redness only without any heat or discomfort, then that’s melanin. Controlled tanning will allow you to build up a base tan without peeling. If you peel, then you’ve 1) burned your skin and 2) lost your tanning efforts. You want to gain color slowly to prevent burning and peeling.
When tanning in a tanning bed or outdoors, using a high quality tanning lotion is important. A lotion hydrates your skin before, during and after UV exposure. So, always use a lotion as sun exposure is very dehydrating. Tanning bed lotions can be used outdoors. However, most outdoor lotions cannot be used in a tanning bed (it can cause reactions with the acrylic surfaces). So, if you want to combine bed tanning and outdoor tanning, buy a lotion that works in a bed and also use it outdoors. Again, make sure the lotion does not have any sunscreen at all. You can buy a sunscreen lotion if you really need it for outdoor use.
There are various lotions on the market from various vendors. The one thing I will caution you about is that some tanning bed lotions can be very expensive and, yet, completely ineffective. You want to find a lotion that works for you and that provides results. However, don’t be fooled by ‘Triple Bronzing Formulas’ or ‘Quadruple Bronzing Formulas’. These are buzzwords that mean they have added either 1) color or 2) self-tanners (yes, like the ones you can get at the drug store). If you want to see how you are progressing naturally, make sure to NOT buy any lotion with a self-tanner. This may mean you have to buy the lotion from the Internet (which are cheaper this way anyway) than buying it from the salon.
You will need to read the label for self-tanners. The two common self-tanners are dihydroxyacetone and erythrulose. So, if you find these ingredients in the lotion, put it back on the shelf and find something else. You may find that your salon does not carry any lotions without self-tanners. The reason that salons carry ‘Bronzing formulas’ is that these lotions give immediate color (or, at least, within 4 hours). This immediate gratification supposedly brings back the customers. However, don’t be fooled. You want a real base tan, not a self-tanner tan. So, skip self-tanner bronzer lotions and find a lotion without self-tanners.
Here are a couple of manufacturers that make lotions without self-tanners: Designer Skin (Intrigue and a select others) and Hoss Sauce (Dark, Super Dark and Ultra Dark). I personally have found Hoss Sauce to be more effective than Designer Skin, but your mileage may vary. There are some lotions that also offer tingle, hot or cold sensations when you are tanning. Avoid these until you have a base tan. Otherwise, these may interfere your tanning or increase your chances of a burn.
Note: Self-tanner color offers no protection from UVA or UVB. Don’t be fooled by the color from a self-tanner. It offers no protection from the sun and, again, can encourage a bad burn. When trying to obtain a base tan, always use a lotion without self-tanners!
When tanning at a salon, you will find many different tanning beds. The least expensive beds (sometimes $6-8 a session) are the least effective beds at tanning. They should have a ratio of 5% UVB to 95% UVA (just like the sun). However, you may find these beds aren’t that effective. There can be many reasons for this. Cleanliness in a salon is very important. Bulb age is also important. Many tanning salons have these beds booked every open hour of the salon. These bulbs, then, get a lot of use. Many salon owners try to cut costs by not replacing the bulbs as often as they should. If you find that you get nothing out of a bed, the two main reasons are that 1) the acrylic is dirty and 2) the bulbs are old. When I say the acrylic is dirty, I’m not talking about the part where you lay. I’m talking about the underside of it. These acrylic surfaces must be removed about once a week and thoroughly cleaned on both sides. The bulbs themselves should also be wiped down to prevent any buildup on the bulb. Doing this frequently increases the tanning capability of the bed to what it should be.
Many salons pride themselves on thoroughly cleaning the bed surface, but how often do they remove the acrylics and clean the underside? Not often in many cases. Yes, even the ‘expensive salons’ as well. So, you should ask the salesperson how often the underside gets cleaned.
As far as tanning capacity, on the high end beds (high pressure beds), it is not uncommon to find up to 18000-20000 watts in the bed. The low end beds might provide around 9000-11000 watts. The difference in wattage (and UV output) is substantial. The high pressure beds, then, will probably run between 8-12 minutes for the maximum time of that bed per session. Low pressure beds might run between 20-30 minutes. So, if time is important to you, the higher pressure beds get you in and out faster.
Note, never tan in a bed and then immediately lay out or stay outside for extended time without sunscreen. You are asking for a bad burn. Do not do this. If you tan in a bed and then end up outdoors in the sun the same day, wear some sunscreen outdoors. Or, better, don’t tan in a bed on the day you plan on being outdoors.
Tricks for tanning in a bed
When trying to get your base tan in a tanning bed, you will need to move around in the bed. Don’t lay absolutely still. For example, lay on your back for a bit, then lay on one side, then the other, raise your arms, etc. Doing this will give you a much more even tan than lying perfectly still. If you stay still, you will get telltale bed marks on certain places like your shoulder blades and between your buttocks (where the acrylic touches). Moving around prevents these marks. You might even turn over and lay on your stomach for a while (even in a bed where you don’t need to turn). You can also use a standup tanning booth to avoid these issues.
How long does it take?
This question can really only be answered by the salon operator after they have assessed your skin type. Once they determine your skin type, they can tell you what you need to do in order to progress. However, you need to read your skin after you have tanned at a salon to know if you are going too fast. If, after a session, you have no color or redness by the next day, then you may be progressing too slowly. However, if you are red, hot and having discomfort, you are moving too fast (burned). If you do get a burn from a bed or outdoors, do not tan until the burn has gone away (takes several days).
For the lightest skins, it may take between 6-9 weeks to build a minimal base tan. For medium skin tones, you can probably see a base tan in 3-6 weeks. For dark tones, you probably already have a base tan, but if you are a lighter skinned, it may take 2-3 weeks in a bed. As a side note, dark tones can still get darker. Melanin works the same way in all people who can produce melanin.
Again, these are only estimates. You should always discuss your skin type with the salon owner to set up a proper regimen that works for you.
This portion is to set expectations on how your skin may look tanned. Note, there are two different types or melanin (pigment): 1) pheomelanin (reds and yellows) and 2) eumelanin (dark browns). The darkness of color depends on which types of melanin your body produces and the concentration of each type. Lighter skinned people tend to produce more pheomelanin (reds and yellows) and less eumelanin (dark shades). This mix gives the redish and yellowish copper or ‘golden’ colors. Darker skinned and olive toned people tend to produce much more eumelanin and with less pheomelanin. This color becomes much darker brown to black. Darkest toned people tend to produce nearly all eumelanin and in high concentrations. So, depending on your body’s type of melanocytes, your body may produce a range between both of these types of melanin. You’ll just need assess your tone after you’ve tanned. This also means that, depending on your skin type and melanin mix, you may not be able to turn very dark brown (if that’s what you are wanting). Or, alternatively, you may find that you get darker much faster than you thought.
You can gauge your skin’s tone by your hair color. The darker your hair, the more eumelanin your skin is likely able to produce. Melanin is also used to produce hair color. So, red haired people will likely produce more pheomelanin. You can see this color in the freckles of many red haired people. Blonds are likely to produce much more pheomelanin than eumelanin (blond would be the yellow melanin). Black haired people should be able to produce the darkest brown eumelanin tones. Note that hair color should only be used as a guide as some dark haired people may only produce a lighter ‘golden’ tan.
Melanin of all types will eventually oxidise to a brown color from its initial color and deepen the color of the tan. This oxidation will make the familiar brownish tones (yes, even the reds and yellows will oxidise).
Getting UV exposure to your skin also helps maintain health with Vitamin D. Sunscreens prevent the creation of Vitamin D as UV is blocked. So, getting some UV exposure aids in stimulating the creation of beneficial vitamins. So, before you immediately put on that sunscreen, leave it off for a small amount of time to get your vitamin D. Put it on later to prevent the burning.
Suntans, Skin Types and Hormones
Some people feel that a suntan looks bad and prefer not to have a tan. Again, that thinking promotes a bad burn when you do need to be outdoors. Some people may think this way because they haven’t previously been able to tan. Some skin types (type I) can’t readily tan. For Type 1 and Type 2 skins, there is a product that may soon be on the market to help. It is a peptide (melanocyte stimulating hormone) that stimulates the melanocytes to produce melanin in individuals who do not have this hormone or where the hormone is ineffective. For many people, this simulated hormone works and allows people to tan in the sun or in a tanning bed when they previously couldn’t get a tan. Of course, this hormone only works if the melanocytes are functioning properly. By having a base tan, this prevents burns and also helps reduce premature aging by blocking UVA. Note, however, that you must get sun exposure to obtain a tan even with the use of this hormone. It does not tan you without sun exposure. So, the use of the hormone still requires UV exposure to obtain the initial tan.
Overall, sunscreens may not be long term healthy for your skin. Getting a tan requires some sun damage to obtain the tan. But, the melanin helps reduce the risk of burns and other related issues. It’s up to you to choose what you want to do, but nothing in life is without risks. Know that a tan is a natural skin process. Placing chemicals on your skin is not natural. Even though you cannot see or feel any damage by using sunscreen chemicals, that doesn’t mean no damage exists. When you get a sunburn, you feel it and know the skin is damaged. With sunscreen, there’s just no way to know if something you get later in life was related to earlier years of using large amounts of sunscreen. It’s your choice, however.
Skin Cancer and Burning
Yes, I know, we’ve all heard the rhetoric: Exposure to UV causes cancer. I’ll leave this one for you to decide. But, I will say is this. Tanning beds produce UV. The Sun produces UV. UV is UV is UV. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the Sun or from a flourescent bulb in a tanning bed, it’s still UV. But, as I stated above, the difference between a tanning bed and laying outdoors: one is controlled, one isn’t. Again, it’s for you to decide which to choose. But, because of varying conditions with laying outdoors, you could end up burned and not know it for several hours. On the other hand, a salon will assess your skin and put you in a bed that’s timed based on your skin tone and type. So, they are trying to keep you from getting burned in a Salon. The Sun is not controlled or timed to shut off. This means, if you lay out longer than you had wanted or get caught up in an activity, you can easily forget and burn yourself. Burning is definitely damage to the skin and it is theorized that this damage leads to cancer… so you want to avoid a burn at all costs.
UPDATE: World Health Oganization (WHO) lists sunbeds (specifically) and all UV exposure as fully carcinogenic at all wavelengths (highest risk)
A new study conducted with mice, that I’ve yet to read, has classified sunbeds specifically and all UV exposure as the highest risk of causing skin cancer. I’m not sure what prompted this change in view, other than a single study, but they have made this change. Clearly, one study is not enough to make this determiniation, but that is exactly what the World Health Organization is doing. There must be some subtext here that’s prompting this change. Perhaps the sunscreen industry is losing more money to people choosing to tan rather than slather on the sunscreen.