What to Know About Tanning

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on February 29, 2024
3 min read

A healthy glow is something most people want. To some, that glow comes in the form of a tan.

There are a few different ways to get a tan, including tanning beds and the old-fashioned method: lying in the sun.

Getting out in the sun has pros and cons. The sun provides you with vitamin D, but its rays also pose a threat to your skin.

You get tan when your skin comes into contact with ultraviolet rays of light (UV rays). The two types of UV rays are UVA and UVB.

Your skin has three major layers:

  • Epidermis. The top layer you can see
  • Dermis. The second layer, which contains mostly nerves, glands, and follicles.
  • Subcutaneous tissue. The third and final layer, which is full of fatty tissues, veins, and arteries.

UVA is the type of light that makes you tan. It reaches the lower layers of the epidermis, triggering your skin to produce a brown pigment called melanin. Melanin is made by cells called melanocytes.

Melanin is your skin’s effort to block the damage that UVA rays cause. The more you expose it to the sun, the more melanin your body produces.

UVB rays cause sunburn. They burn just the upper layers of the epidermis.

People with darker skin have more melanin and tend to tan a deeper color. People with dark skin tones don’t sunburn as easily as those with light skin. But without sunscreen or other protection, anyone is vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays.

How long it takes you to get a tan depends on:

  • Your skin tone
  • Your sensitivity to the sun
  • The strength of the sun’s rays
  • The altitude at your location
  • Whether you’re using sunscreen, and what sun protection factor (SPF) your sunscreen has

Talk to a dermatologist or doctor to find out how much sun your skin can tolerate. There is no safe way to tan.

Sun exposure can help you get vitamin D and boost your mood. It also might help lower your blood pressure and help you sleep better. But unprotected sun exposure is very damaging for your skin.

Tanning can change your skin permanently. Long-term sun exposure can seriously damage your skin and prematurely age you. Tanning can cause dark spots and wrinkles.

UVA rays also can cause a skin cancer called melanoma, which can be deadly. When melanoma goes undetected, it can spread quickly throughout the body, infecting other organs.

UVB rays cause two types of skin cancers: basal and squamous cell carcinoma. When you get skin cancer, your doctor often removes it by cutting out the cancer. These surgeries can leave scars on your skin.

Sunscreen can reduce your risk of skin cancer and let you safely spend time outdoors. Follow these tips to make sure your sunscreen does the job:

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen. A broad-spectrum sunscreen means it blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Wear sunscreen every day. Use sunscreen with a minimum of 30 SPF. Don’t be fooled by clouds. They can actually make the sun’s rays even more intense. Apply sunscreen in the morning, so you’re protected all day. 
  • Reapply if you go swimming. Activities like swimming or sweating can make your sunscreen less effective. Reapply after every swim or sweat session.
  • Stay out of the sun when it’s hottest. Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Tanning beds are marketed as a quick and convenient way to tan. But they’re dangerous and lack the sun’s benefits.

They emit mainly UVA rays, which don’t provide you with vitamin D and are linked to melanoma. Tanning beds have been shown to increase the rate of melanoma in young women.

Like too much sunlight, tanning beds can also age your skin prematurely.

Luckily, there’s a solution for people who want to be tan without the risks. Sunless tanners are creams or lotions applied to your skin that mimic the look of melanin.

Some self-tanners contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a product that gradually stains your skin. Use this type with caution. DHA isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on certain parts of your body, like your lips.

Sunless tanners are made with many different ingredients and they come in a range of shades. Look around until you find one that works best for you.