Should I get a tan before my tropical getaway?

We all have heard individuals claim that if they do not indoor tan a week to a month before their trip to a warmer climate, they suffer serious burns that ruin their trip. To thoroughly enjoy their trip, prior tanning appears to offer them protection from severe, painful burns and even sun poisoning.

If only this were completely true. There is little positive evidence to support the idea that tanning before a trip will help you. While the small benefit of providing you a little longer time to burn than if you had no tan, this is minor compared to the increased risk of skin and eye cancer, sun damage, premature aging skin, and permanent skin discoloration.

What you should know about tanning?

  • Indoor tanning exposes you to ultraviolet radiation A and B (UVA and UVB) light. UVA radiation causes aging skin and the permanent skin discoloration that accumulates over time. UVB radiation causes burns, tissue damage. While the cellular damage from UVB plays a significant role in skin cancer progression, both types of radiation contribute to skin cancer.
  • Tanning before a trip to more temperate climates provides about SPF 4 protection from the sun in terms of shielding from UVB burns. This means it will take longer for you to burn. But with enough sun, you will still burn. Therefore, tanning does not protect you from burning.
  • There is clear evidence that every episode of indoor tanning increases your risk of skin cancer, especially melanoma skin cancer. While you think you are protecting yourself from burning on your trip, you are simply increasing your chances of skin cancer that may result in preventable surgeries, pain, and even death.
  • People who tan tend to not only do so before trips; clear data show that the use of tanning beds is associated with more risky sun exposure practices and less consideration of protective behaviors.
  • What you can do instead of indoor tanning?

  • Wear sunscreen! Broad spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 will shield you from you UVA and UVB radiation better than indoor tanning. which provides you with a meager SPF 4 protection.
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure!
  • Reapply sunscreen regularly! To avoid burns, reapply sunscreen every two hours while outdoors and within 30 minutes following water submersion.
  • Wear protective clothing! This will easily provide more shielding from ultraviolet sun damage. Hats and clothing made of material with SPF coverage can provide physical protection that will further allow you to enjoy the sun.
  • For added shielding, use a sunscreen with higher SPF! While the data shows that SPF 30 provides 97% protection from UVB when applied as 2 milligrams of sunscreen to 2 centimeters of skin. However, most people do not apply enough sunscreen or do not reapply often enough. A higher SPF of 50 provides 98% protection from UVB. Higher SPFs provide very little further protection but the key point is that a higher broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF offers more shielding and can fill the gap related to decreased application and less reapplication frequency of sunscreen.
  • Use topical self-tanners! If you like the look of tanned skin, consider a tanning product. For example, L'Oreal and Jergens make numerous products that can give you the cosmetic look you want without the increased skin damage and potential skin cancer. Learn more about these products and which one might be right for you.
  • References:

    Rotter, S. Ask the expert: Will getting a tan before going to a sunny environment protect me? Skin Cancer Foundation: Winter 2008 Edition of Sun & Skin News.

    Wang, SQ. Ask the expert: Does a higher-SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreen always protect your skin better? Skin Cancer Foundation: Winter 2010 Edition of Sun & Skin News.

    Fischer AH, et al. Association of Indoor Tanning Frequency With Risky Sun Protection Practices and Skin Cancer Screening. JAMA Dermatol. 2016 Oct 12.