The SkinSort Blog

Is tanning good for you?

Updated: July 05, 2023

Just a hundred years ago, women were applying lead and arsenic-based products to lighten skin. Even famous historical figures, such as Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra, used methods to lighten skin.

In the past century, tanning became the new trend. Many love having a glowy tan, especially after a tropical vacation.

Is tanning really good for you? This article will cover everything you need to know about tanning:

  • Brief history of Tanning
  • What makes skin tan?
  • Does a tan help protect your skin from the sun?
  • Can you tan with sunscreen?
  • Indoor tanning beds
  • Healthy tanning methods
  • Are tanning products bad for you?

History of Tanning

Throughout many centuries, lighter skin was coveted in many parts of the world. While the cultural nuances existed, there was a common theme in many parts of the world: Light skin is equivalent to being wealthy. Being wealthy meant you did not have to work outside!

So when did this all change?

Though the history is not clear, many credit Coco Chanel for starting this trend. It is said she tanned while vacationing in the French Riviera in the 1920's. When she arrived home, she had started a trend. The famous singer and actress, Josephine Baker, is also credited for boosting the popularity of tanning.

By the 1930's, sunlight was being prescribed as a cure for almost every sickness. In the decades after that, tanning became a booming business. From self tanners to metallic refractors to using baby oil in the sun, everyone was chasing a tan!

Sun Tanning

If you're here, you definitely know to not put oil on and go outside in the sun. (Please do not use oil to tan).

Your skin in the sun

How does your skin tan?

UV radiation damages your skin cells. In turn, your skin starts to produce melanin when exposed to UV rays. Researchers believe this is your skin's self-defense response to UV.

Prolonged exposure to the sun leads to burning and peeling. Your skin's response to tanning and burning depends on your genetics. Pale skin types are faster to burn.

Melanin is a natural brown pigment produced by your skin's melanocyte cells. Humans are naturally born with melanin; some have more than others. The melanin we naturally have is responsible for our skin, hair, and eye colors. Brown eyes contain more melanin than blue eyes.

While most of us do our best to avoid burning, what about tanning?

Does a tan protect your skin?

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but any form of sun exposure leads to increased risk of skin cancer. This means both tanning and burning.

On top of that, sun damage is cumulative. This means the damage from every tan and/or burn you've ever had builds on top of each other.

What this means is: having a base tan does not protect your skin. Nor does it give your skin some kind of armor against sunburn. Tanning while having a base tan is still accumulating damage in your skin.

According to Harvard Medical School, having a base tan is only equivalent to wearing a sunscreen with SPF 3-4. When going outdoors, most experts recommend at least SPF 30.

Getting a "base tan" is a myth that has been told over and over again for decades.

Dr. Katy Tsai at UC San Francisco quotes:
"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."


While more research is needed to fully understand UV on the skin, we know UV breaks down elastin and collagen in your skin.

In other words, prolonged exposure in the sun can also lead to premature aging. The sun can account for up to 90% of the signs of aging!

A rule of thumb in skincare: It's easier to protect your skin rather than undo the damage later on. The damage from unprotected sun exposure takes one or two decades to show up. It's easier to prevent damage than to undo it later on.

What about Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is absolutely crucial for health. We are able to get forms of Vitamin D from foods such as salmon, tuna, egg yolks, fortified foods, and supplements.

While the sun does provide us with Vitamin D, we can get enough without tanning or burning. One study in the UK found getting 13 minutes of sunlight exposure in the summer, 3x per week, is enough vitamin D for most caucasian adults.

However, the general consensus amongst dermatologists is to get Vitamin D without sacrificing your skin. Most recommend getting Vitamin D through your diet.

One study from Australia found the same Vitamin D levels between adults that use sunscreen and those who were given a placebo cream.

Does sunscreen block tanning?

This depends on the formulation of the sunscreen. There are two types of UV rays: UV-A and UV-B that affect us. UV-C is blocked by our ozone.

UV-A is linked to tanning and long-term photoaging. UV-B is linked to burning. All types of UV are linked to skin cancer.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens, or sunscreens with the label PA+, will prevent your skin from tanning as long as you apply it properly. Most modern sunscreens will stop your skin from tanning.

Some older sunscreens are only formulated to protect us from UV-B rays. This means you will still tan.

Remember to apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors. Sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours, or right away if you are sweating. We wrote a comprehensive guide to understanding sunscreen labels here.

Indoor Tanning Beds

Indoor tanning beds are not a safe alternative to sun-tanning. Tanning bed bulbs emit mostly UV-A light. If you recall, UV-A is responsible for most tanning and premature aging.

One study of women who used tanning beds between the years 2007-2010 found indoor tanning increased the risk of skin cancer significantly (58% for squamous cell carcinoma and 24% for basal cell carcinoma).

Tanning beds do not give your body the Vitamin D it needs: your body needs both UV-A and UV-B rays to create Vitamin D.

Safe Tanning

The best way to give yourself a glowy tan is to use self-tanning products.

Self-tanning products are safe to use and can look natural if applied properly. Dermatologists all over the world recommend using self-tanners rather than exposing your skin to UV.

How do tanning products work?

Self-tanning products contain DHA, or dihydroxyacetone. DHA is a simple sugar that reacts with the amino acids in your dead skin. When they bind to these amino acids, it creates an orange-brown color in the skin.

DHA begins to kick in a few hours after application and will continue to develop for up to 3 days.

Please remember to wear sunscreen with self-tanner! Self-tanners do not provide UV protection.

Both the US and the EU have approved DHA in self-tanning products. In the EU, DHA is allowed at a maximum concentration of 10%. Most tanning products usually contain amounts between 3-5%.

DHA can be drying so it is best to rehydrate your skin frequently after. Do not apply tanning products to sensitive areas.

If you are pregnant or have underlying medical conditions, it is best to speak with a dermatologist about using self-tanning products.


Do not hide in a dark cave for your entire life! As a human being, it is impossible to avoid the sun. While tanning is normal, keeping it to a minimum is the best option for your skin.

Definitely wear sunscreen if you will be exposed to the sun. Be on the lookout for broad-spectrum and high SPF sunscreens.

The safest way to tan is using self-tanning, or fake-tanning, products.

Extra Notes

Here at SkinSort, we believe every skin tone and type is beautiful. Please remember you are valued and loved just as you are.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to tan, or the opposite. We only advocate for everyone to stay safe and healthy.

Further Learning

If you missed our in-depth articles about UV and sunscreen, check them out here.