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How to Tan

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on July 11, 2022. In Beach

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Going to the beach is one of the great thrills of summer. The sun and surf draw people like nothing else. It’s one of the most relaxing and free feelings we can get in the modern world. And whether you’re there for a picnic, to boat or swim, to fish or just lay out in the sun, you’re probably heading towards getting a sun tan.

Tanning is going to happen any time you’re in the sun but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it, especially if your goal is to actually get a nice, even tan. Let’s take a look at the best ways for you to get a tan, some of the precautions you should take, and some of the options you have for improving it.

The History of Tanning

Believe it or not but tanning isn’t really that old of a concept. Yes, anyone with pale enough skin who goes out in the sun will tan, that’s a given. But the idea of tanning solely for the purpose of changing your skin tone is actually fairly recent in a historical sense.

The modern fascination with golden, tanned skin only dates back to the 1920s. It was in 1923, so the story goes, that French fashion designer Coco Chanel was caught out in the sun on the French Riviera. She developed a nice, golden tan and that kicked off a tan revolution.

Prior to this point, tanning was not desirable. People who had tans were laborers – the farmers and others who toiled under the sun. So, for many, a tan was a sign that you were considered low class, if you can believe that. It had been this way for hundreds of years.

Coco Chanel’s tan represented an entire class shift. Because, by the 1920s, people viewed labor differently. By then people were toiling away in factories and mines and officers. If someone had a tan it meant they had the time and money to be outside enjoying the sun, not trapped working all day long. So what had once represented the lower classes came to represent affluence.

Not only did a tan imply a degree of wealth, but also that you were free to enjoy your leisure and, of course, that you were healthy. We still refer to a tan as giving you a healthy glow. And if someone is ill? We might remark on how pale they appear. Rightly or wrongly, those ideas are ingrained in us.

What Exactly is a Tan?

So we know the sun or a tanning bed is going to give us a tan. But why? No, the sun isn’t cooking you. Not technically, anyway. Instead, the UV rays that the sun emits are penetrating your skin and causing a reaction in cells called melanocytes. These cells produce the pigment known as melanin which is your body’s natural defense against sun exposure. Your cells are trying to limit the damage the UV rays are causing. The longer this process goes, the darker your skin will get. At some point, however, you can burn and cause damage.

Natural Tanning

The most common way to get a tan is the natural way. You could argue it’s also the easiest way but that very much depends on where you live. There are very few people in Greenland who would argue it’s easy to tan in the middle of December.

If you want to tan safely and evenly, and you’re in a place with enough sun to make that work, there is a process to ensure it works. Yes, you can just go and layin the sun, but if you want this to work as well as it can, try following a few easy steps and see if you like the results better.

If you know ahead of time you plan to tan, like maybe you’re going on vacation down south, prepare yourself first. Buy an exfoliating body scrub and slough off all that dead skin a couple of days before you ultimately hit the beach. Don’t do it just before you leave the house to hit the beach, mind you. That could lead to dried out skin and burns. Give yourself a couple of days.

Use sunscreen before you head out. Does that sound counterintuitive? Well, yes and no. Sunscreen is able to protect your skin cells from damaging UVA and especially UVB rays. Make sure it’s a broad spectrum sunscreen which means it actually does prevent both UVA and UVB, not just one of them. You’ll still tan with sunscreen on, but you’re less likely to burn, and that’s what you want. Choose something with an SPF of at least 30 and cover all exposed skin. We’ll go more into sunscreen later.

Once you’re covered in sunscreen, make sure you don’t stay in one place for too long. You want to change positions frequently to let the sun get all exposed areas evenly. This will prevent a darkly tanned front and pale sides or back.

Depending on how long you stay out, you may need to reapply sunscreen. The general recommendation from many dermatologists is to reapply every two hours. Do it more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming. You shouldn’t be tanning for much longer than this, however. After two or three hours, your body will run out of an ability to produce any new melanin. From that point you will just be burning your skin.

Once you’ve spent as much time in the sun as you want to, you should still do some work to protect your skin. It’s good to take a shower once you’re back inside, but you don’t want to scrub yourself down this time. Just a rinse is good. Afterwards, pat yourself dry and then moisturize. Both the sun and surf dry your skin out. Moisturizing will prevent peeling and flaky, as well as the flaky white look that goes along with it.

Using a Tanning Bed

Nearly every town has at least one tanning salon in it where you can pay to lay down in a tanning bed and get a tan any time of year. The upside here is that you don’t need to wait for a nice day. You also don’t have to worry about other people and it’s much faster. Sounds great, right? Well, be cautious. Tanning beds are not that safe.

A tanning bed can expose you to UV radiation that may be 3 to 5 times higher than peak sunshine. If you spend 20 minutes in a tanning bed, it cou;d be the equivalent of two hours out in natural sunlight.

Are Tanning Beds Safer Than the Sun?

Some people think getting a tanning salon tan before going on vacation will actually protect them from “real” sun exposure by giving them a base tan. This is not actually a practical way to prevent sun damage. A tan gives you maybe an SPF 3 protection against a future burn.

Also, tanning beds are not safer for young people, which is a rumor that goes around sometimes. They’re actually worse to use if you’re under 30, so keep that in mind as well.

It’s just safer to tan on a beach or out in the open air on a summer day if you want to do it. You can take precautions and also enjoy the outdoors at the same time. It’s less damaging and more fun, so I’d recommend it more than a tanning bed.

Skin Prep for Tanning

There are a variety of products you can apply to your skin before going to get a tan. Some will help, some will hinder, it all depends on your ultimate goal.

Tanning Oil and Tanning Lotion

Tanning lotions and tanning oil is not to be confused with sunscreen because it does the exact opposite job. While sunscreen is meant to offer sun protection, tanning oil actually focuses those UV rays as a tan accelerator to increase exposure.

The danger of using tanning oil is that, as stated, it increases exposure to harmful UV rays. That can lead to faster burning and increased risk of skin cancer. You want to get a tanning oil made with an SPF factor of at least 30 included. That way the other ingredients can help you achieve the shade you want, possibly blocking more UVB radiation, and keeping you safer.

Tanning oils often include bronzing agents that help you get that color you’re looking for. There are good products on the market, just make sure you read the label and see how it protects from damage while giving you the results you want.

Bronzer

A bronzer is a compound that creates an artificial tan in your skin. The most common bronzers on the market contain dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. This is a sugar derived from beets and sugar cane. When applied to your skin, it reacts with amino acids in your flesh to produce melaninoids. Like your skin’s natural melanin, these are a brown color and thus give you the same look and effect of a tan but with less or even no sun exposure.

The color is produced in the surface layers of your skin and doesn’t trigger any real melanin production. Thus, give it a few days, and you can wash away most of the effect after a few showers. Typically this only lasts for a week to 10 days.

You can start seeing the full effects of a bronzer in about 4 hours but some may not give full results for almost 12 hours, so be careful when using them. You may end up darker than you expect.

There are also natural bronzers available made from various plant and herb extracts. These typically don’t provide as dark a color as DHA and are often considered to look more natural overall.

Bronzers usually have artificial coloring agents that change your skin tone right away, and then the DHA works slowly over the next few hours. The bronzing agent will wash away, while the DHA effect lasts for days.

Spray Tans

In the last 20 years or so, spray tans really took off as an alternative to true tanning. Spray tanning works the same way bronzers do because it’s actually the same thing. You’re being sprayed with DHA to activate the pigments thanks to the amino acids in your skin and produce an artificial tan look.

The difference between using a bronzer and getting a spray tan is, obviously, the method. A spray tan gives you full boy coverage and it does so very quickly. You shou;d end up evenly covered at the end and hopefully with the result you desire. It’s worth noting, however, that some spray tans seem to look much better than others. This has to do with a few things from the skill of the person applying the spray to the concentration of the DHA being applied.

If you end up with a really orange or unusual spray tan it’s likely one of two things happened. One, you could have kept it on too long before rinsing. Two, you may have had a bad mix. If you normally tan very dark, then a spray tan will show up very dark as well. So you may have had a mix of DHA that was too high for your skin type. Hopefully the person working at the spray tan business understands skin tones and gives you the right concentration. If not, then you may want to consider going someplace else next time. It’s always best to ask the person ahead of time what the concentration of DHA is and if they know the difference based on skin tones.

Concentrations are usually between 5% and as much as 18% depending on the business. If you go for 18%, prepare to look extremely dark. You should never try this your first time out. 5% is a good starting concentration because it will give you a feel for how your skin reacts to the DHA. it also ensures that you are less likely to have any mishaps. If something does go wrong, maybe it’s uneven or your skin reacts oddly, it will be much less noticeable.

Traditionally, the lighter your skin tone, the lower the concentration you want. If you have fair skin or sensitive skin and burn in sunlight all the time, a concentration of 5% to 7% is ideal. If your skin tone is naturally darker and you almost never tan naturally because of it, then you can go up to maybe 14% or higher.

Sprays tans are recommended by dermatologists and doctors over natural tanning for obvious reasons. If there was one thing you should be on the lookout for it’s how a spray tan can affect certain imperfections or skin conditions. If you have freckles, birthmarks or other usually hard to notice spots on your skin, for instance, a spray tan may make them significantly darker. The darkness may outlast the spray tan by a couple of weeks as well, so keep that in mind.

Sunscreen

Regular use of a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 can reduce your risk of certain skin cancers by at least 40%. Higher SPF is always recommended if you’re planning on extensive sun exposure and tanning.

Photons from the sun in the form of UVA and UVB rays are what damage you. UVA is a longer wavelength and penetrates deeper but is actually less damaging. It’s more often associated with premature aging from sun exposure, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. It is also carcinogenic, just not as bad as UVB rays.. And while UVB rays don’t penetrate deeply, they cause more immediate damage. They mutate your cell DNA and lead to burns in the short term and cancer in the long term. So sunscreen is meant to protect you from those two kinds of radiation specifically.

Sunscreen protects you in a couple of ways. Molecules in the sunscreen actually absorb those UV photos before they hit your skin. Other molecules made of pigments can scatter the UV rays, basically forcing them in a different direction so they can’t reach your skin as well. The word “screen” is very accurate in that sense. Think of a screen on a window in a rainstorm. Without the screen, the rain would pour in. With the screen, much of it is blocked and far less gets through

The SPF number on sunscreen refers to how much of those UV photons are blocked by the sunscreen. If you have an SPF 30 sunscreen the theory is that you can now be in the sun 30 times longer than if you had no sunscreen on.

SPF 30 sunscreen will allow about 3% of UVB rays to get through to your skin. SPF 50 reduces that to 2%. Seems like barely a difference, right? But consider this, that means you get 50% more UVB rays with SPF 30 than with SPF 50.

SPF ratings are also based on ideal conditions and accurate use based on directions. Research has already shown people who put on higher SPF sunscreen tend to be more irresponsible as a result. They stay out longer, forget to reapply, and don’t fully follow directions. That means they’re getting less benefit than they realize, so keep that in mind.

Sunblock

So now that we know what sunscreen does, what about sunblock? These are not the same product so you don’t want to mistake them, especially if you really do want a tan. While sun screen lets some of the UV rays through, sunblock is intended to completely block the sun. If sunscreen is a screen on a window, sunblock is the curtains and you’re closing them.

Sunblocks leave a thicker layer of product on your skin and the product reflects the sun’s rays off of your body. If you don’t want to tan at all, you’d use a sunblock. Most people dislike these because they go on thick and are noticeable, like when someone puts that thick zinc on their nose. But if you have very pale skin or are prone to burns, this is what you want because it will prevent serious damage.

Dangers of Tanning

We’ve already touched on some of the dangers of sun exposure but it’s worth keeping them in mind. You can make tanning safer for yourself as we’ve seen, but it’s worth knowing what you’re up against and why you need to take the right precautions before heading out into the sun.

Flaking and Peeling Skin

Although these are symptoms of burns and potentially worse skin damage, in and of itself flaking or peeling skin isn’t all that dangerous. It’s a natural result of damaging the skin in such an even way. Some people are notorious for peeling when they get a burn and it may come away in massive sheets that can be off putting or even scary if you’re not used to it. But just know that it’s a common side effect and you’ll want to try to moisturize your skin to prevent or ameliorate the effect after a burn.

What is a Sunburn?

As mentioned above, your skin doesn’t really want to be exposed to UV rays. That’s harmful radiation and it causes mutations in your cells. Your body reacts by trying to protect you with melanin but it can only do so much. Too much sun exposure leads directly to a sunburn.

Your cells will try to protect you from the radiation but the UV will cause cellular mutation. With enough exposure, the cells actually die. This causes your body to increase blood flow to your skin in an effort to bring white blood cells and other immune cells to the source of the damage to repair it. All of this together results in swelling, redness and soreness.

As the damage heals, the redness and soreness go away. Some damaged cells may peel off in the form of dead skin cells while others may continue to mutate and lead to skin cancer.

Skin Cancer

The damage caused to your skin by the sun can’t be reversed, it can only be prevented. Any creams or lotions that claim to undo damage aren’t telling the truth, so keep that in mind.

Having 5 or more sunburns in your life will actually double your risk of developing some kind of skin cancer. About 9,500 people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer every year so it’s a real problem. 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are linked to UV exposure from the sun. That’s why using sunscreen is so important. If caught early, there’s a high success rate for treating many kinds of skin cancer associated with sun exposure but, as I said earlier, prevention is even better. If you’re going to tan, please do it the smart way!

Tanning Tips

When you finally do get under the sun, there are a few tricks to help make your experience safer, faster and better overall.

  • Wear sunglasses. This should go without saying but if you plan to be in the sun, you need to protect your eyes since they’re not going to benefit from sunscreen.
  • Choose the best time. Your intuition may say that high noon is the ideal time to tan. Not so fast. While the sun may be its most intense between 12 – 4, it’s also at its most damaging. Try before noon or after 3pm to get a good tan with less intense UV exposure.
  • Take breaks. Every 30 minutes or so, get up and hit the shade for a few minutes. This will give your skin a chance to take a little break and also give you a chance to get an idea about how your tan is progressing.
  • Avoid the booze. Drinking alcohol will dehydrate you, as will being in the sun. Put the two together and now only are you at risk of overall dehydration and the ill-effects that come with it, but your skin may suffer as well. You’re more likely to burn and flake if your skin is dehydrated.

The Bottom Line

It’s an unfortunate reality that tanning is just not as safe as many of us would like. That means being cautious when you tan. It can be hard to appreciate the potential damage being caused when we can’t see it happening, but the science is there to prove it. Make sure you’re being cautious and following the directions on our sunscreen precisely. That includes reapplying when needed and also using as much as is recommended. Don’t skimp on it!

Consider a bronze or a spray tan if you’re just looking to have a slightly darker tone and avoid tanning beds if at all possible. They’re just not worth the risk when you have safer alternatives out there.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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