Top 5 Tanning Myths

Before you risk your hide for a bronze glow, you might want to get the scoop on five common tanning myths.
Before you risk your hide for a bronze glow, you might want to get the scoop on five common tanning myths. Learn more with getting beautiful skin pictures.
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Do sunny days and warm weather lure you outside to sunbathe, hoping to add a little color to your skin? Every year, the "California girl" standard of beauty sends millions of sun-worshippers to the pool, the beach or the tanning bed in search of the perfect tan.

Unfortunately, a bronze glow that's appealing today can turn into future problems, so it makes sense to learn more about the long-term effects of sun exposure before you head outdoors.


Tanning is the skin's natural way of protecting itself from the sun, but the truth is, there's no such thing as a healthy tan. All ultraviolet rays in sunlight are harmful to the skin, and the amount of damage depends on how long you stay in the sun.

A long afternoon on the beach or a three-set tennis match can result in red, sunburned skin that leads to blistering and peeling. It may also lead to heatstroke, a condition that occurs when the temperature regulating mechanism of your body is unable to keep up with the heat, causing dizziness, breathing problems, nausea, headaches or fainting.

Over the long haul, accumulated sun exposure causes wrinkles, sunspots, a leathery feel and premature aging. The most serious risk from excessive sun exposure is skin cancer. More than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 60,000 cases of melanoma skin cancer were diagnosed in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society [source: WebMD].

Today, while medical science warns that no amount of tanning is safe, some people are reluctant to give up their pursuit of a golden tan. Many misconceptions exist that there is a "safe" way to tan. Here's the real story behind the top five myths.

5: Tanning Beds Are a Safe Way to Tan

Health and skin experts agree: There is no safe way to tan, and tanning beds are no exception. Tanning beds work by exposing the skin to UV rays, which have been proven to cause skin cancer. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has classified exposure to sunlamps or sunbeds as "known to be carcinogenic to humans" and says that the longer the exposure, the greater the risk, especially to people exposed before the age of 30 [source: HHS]. Many states are discussing legislation to restrict access to tanning salons, especially for young people under 18.

A few years ago, the indoor tanning industry promoted that the bulbs used in tanning beds use more UVA rays than the UVB rays that are more likely to cause a burn, hoping this would convince people tanning beds were a safer alternative to natural light. But the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that they are equally dangerous, and UVA rays may be even more likely to cause melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers [source: WHO].


Overuse of tanning beds can also lead to wrinkles, sunspots and other sights of premature aging. Even teenagers may notice additional moles or freckles after repeated visits to the tanning bed -- a certain sign of sun damage.

And if you've heard that indoor tanning promotes good health by boosting vitamin D levels, don't believe it. Most people get all the vitamin D they need from ordinary sun exposure and a balanced diet that includes dairy products, breads, fish and eggs.

4: Sunscreen Provides Complete Protection from the Sun

Sunscreen is only one part of a smart plan for sun protection. Sunscreens absorb, reflect or scatter the harmful UVA and UVB rays of the sun by providing physical or chemical protection. Physical sunscreens contain ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide that form a film to reflect or scatter UV light before it contacts the skin. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients such as avobenzone or osybenzone that absorb UVA or UVB rays.

Every sunscreen has a sun protection level (SPF) that is a measurement of the amount of UVB protection. The higher the number, the greater the protection. An SPF of 15 filters out about 93 percent of the sun's UVB rays; SPF 30 filters about 97 percent of UVB rays.


The effectiveness of sunscreen depends on several factors, including how likely your skin is to burn, how intense the UV rays are, and the amount of sunscreen you apply and how often you apply it. Sweating, swimming, showers and even high humidity, can decrease the effectiveness of your sunscreen. While some sunscreens are water resistant, none are truly waterproof.

When you're choosing a sunscreen, look for broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays. And make sure it actually contains sunscreen: Tanning lotions, accelerators and oils don't, so if one of those products ends up in your beach bag, you may come home with a nasty burn.

3: Getting a Base Tan or Using a Sunless Tanning Product Protects Your Skin

Going on a tropical vacation or taking a cruise? You may think it's smart to schedule some time in a tanning bed or lounging by the pool before your departure to acquire a base tan so you won't get sunburned when you arrive at your destination.

Truth is, a base tan gives some protection, but the real problem is that any change in skin color is the body's natural reaction to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays: It's visible proof that the skin is damaged. Repeated exposure to UV rays increases your risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.


Sunless tanning products change the color of the skin, but they don't stimulate melanin production or absorb UV rays in the range that cause sunburn or sun damage. These self-tanners contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which gradually stains the dead skin cells in your skin's outer layer. The 'tan' lasts until these cells slough off, and the color will fade faster if you wash vigorously or exfoliate.

"Fake bake" products are available in many different formulations, including lotions, sprays and towelettes, and you may want to experiment with different brands to find one that works best with your skin tone. Some salons offer "airbrush tanning," and the results are usually even and natural-looking. If you choose either sunless option, you'll get the warm color that comes from the sun without the potential for skin damage.

2: People with Darker-toned Skin Don't Have to Worry About Sun Damage

Not necessarily. Skin color is determined by the amount of melanin in the epidermis, or the outer layer of the skin. Melanin helps protect the skin against the effects of the sun such as skin cancer and premature aging. In African-American skin, melanin provides an SPF approximately equal to 13.4, compared to 3.4 in white skin. This variance explains why skin cancer is more common in Caucasians, whose light skin color and low presence of melanin makes them more susceptible to sun damage.

Although melanin provides some sun protection, even olive or darker toned skins can burn after a long day in the sun or show signs of skin damage over time (wrinkles, sunspots and blotchiness). And skin cancer is also a risk: It makes up 2 to 4 percent of all cancers among Chinese and Japanese Asians, and 1 to 2 percent of malignancies in African-Americans and Asian-Indians, and the statistics are rising.


Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, occurs in all races. One type of melanoma, acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), is responsible for 50 percent of all melanomas in dark skin. ALM is called a "hidden" melanoma because it develops in places that are not easy to examine: the palms and soles, underneath nails, and on mucous membranes, such as those that line the mouth and nose. In its early stages, ALM is often overlooked because it looks like a bruise or nail streak. Bob Marley, the reggae legend, died from melanoma that was discovered on his foot, but not before it had spread to other parts of his body and become incurable.

1: There's No Need to Worry About Sun Damage on a Cloudy or Cold Day

If you've ever suffered a sunburn after a day on the ski slopes or playing in the snow, you know this myth just isn't true. Ultraviolet rays are still present, even if the skies are cloudy. Some people will stay outside longer if conditions are overcast, and this false sense of safety can lead to painful sunburn.

Snow, water and sand actually reflect 85 percent of the sun's rays, so if you are skiing, boating or spending time on the beach, it's important to wear sunscreen and to reapply it frequently.


Whenever you're going to be outdoors, it's a good habit to follow a sensible plan for sun protection. Be sure to apply sunscreen generously: Use about 1 ounce to cover exposed areas of the body about 30 minutes before heading outdoors, rub it in well, and reapply at least every two hours.

For an even more effective sun protection, head for the shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when sunlight is strongest, and cover up with light colored clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, plus sunglasses that block UV rays.

The result? Younger-looking, healthier skin that will stay attractive for years to come.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • World Health Organization. "Sunbeds, tanning & UV exposure." Fact Sheet No. 287. March 2005.
  • Wickett, Randall R. "How do sunless tanners work?" Scientific American. May 30, 2005.
  • Gohara, Mona and Perez, Maritza. "Skin Cancer and Skin of Color." The Skin Cancer Foundation.
  • Meadows, Michelle. "Don't be in the dark about tanning." FDA Consumer. Vol. 37, November-December 2003.'t Be in the Dark about Tanning