No-Risk Tanning

Spray-On, Rub-On Products Give Bronze Glow Without Skin Damage

From the WebMD Archives

June 7, 2002 -- Blame it on Britney, everyone says. A bronze body is again the trend, especially among high school girls and young women.

But the downside of that drop-dead tan: Deadly melanoma is occurring at increasingly higher rates among young women between 25 and 29, says Shelley Sekula Rodriguez, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Two studies appearing in this month's Pediatrics address the issue.

Few teens are using sunscreen outdoors, according to one study. Girls were far more likely than boys to use sunscreen -- but two-thirds of girls didn't use anything. Girls were also more likely to use tanning beds.

Parents play a big part as role models, the second study shows. Girls whose parents used the salons were likely to use them, too.

"Dangerous," she tells WebMD. "At that young age, your immune system is immature and your cells are growing faster, which means ultraviolet rays can do more damage."

If you crave a tan look, here's the buzz on a new, safer option. "Mystic tan" is a spray-on, sunless tanning process. Just don't be fooled. You'll still need to wear sunscreen when you're outdoors, because you can still get burnt.

Tanning Beds vs. Sun

There's a perception that indoor tanning beds are safe, but "that's a lie," says Sekula Rodriguez. "It's like a safe cigarette. There's no such thing."

In the early days of tanning beds, the bulbs contained only UVA rays -- which were dangerous enough, she explains. "UVA penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin, causing wrinkling, but also increasing the risks of all kinds of skin cancer -- basal [cell], squamous [cell], and melanoma."

In today's tanning beds, most bulbs are "contaminated" with high levels of UVB rays -- the rays that cause burns and are directly linked with skin cancer, she tells WebMD. The rays give you a tan in less time, but it's a riskier process.

A recent study looks at the skin cancer risk from tanning beds. Martin Weinstock, MD, PhD, a professor of dermatology at Brown University Medical School, published his results in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.


According to Weinstock, people who use tanning beds are:

  • 2.5 times more likely to develop a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma than people who do not use them
  • 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, than are those who do not use the devices
  • more likely to develop basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, the younger they were when they began using tanning beds.

Magical Mystical Tans

Best idea yet: fake it with self-tanning creams or mystic tans, says Ron Shelton, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center and co-director of The New York Aesthetic Center in New York City.

Like any sunless tan, mystic tans involve a water-soluble dye that is sprayed all over your body. "The cream dyes put pigment in the dead layer of your skin," Shelton tells WebMD. The color reaches its peak in 24 hours, but may linger for up to two weeks. Some mystic tans cost as little as $20.

Just don't mistake a fake tan for a sunscreen, he says. "It doesn't provide any protection. Patients may think they can be out in the sun longer, but they can get burned and not see it. They still need to use sunscreen."

Sun-Guard Clothes, Dye, Make Sun Safer

Of course, getting that "healthy glow" from sun exposure is always tempting.

Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, says Shelton. Redheads or blue-eyed blondes who burn easily are at highest risk. But even dark-skinned people can get skin cancer.

Too many people think clothing protects them against UV rays. Wrong, says Sekula Rodriguez. "UV rays can get through the weave. A cheap cotton T-shirt has protective value of SPF 2-4 when it's wet. If it's dry, it's 6." That means you'll get sun damage, even under the shirt.

Some designers are developing sun-guard clothes, with sunblock woven into the fabric, she adds. It's also possible to sun-proof your own clothes by adding RIT's Sun Guard to your laundry.

The experts' mantra:

  • Always use a sun block with SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher.
  • Stay out of the sun during the mid-day hours, when rays are strongest.
  • Reapply sunscreen often.


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