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The secret behind these top ten tips for healthier tanning is to make sure that the skin receives sunshine in healthy doses

It's a common conception that sun is always bad for us—in fact, when Australia instituted a campaign to encourage its citizens to wear more sunscreen and get less sun, skin cancer rates went up, not down. That's because in the process of healthy tanning our skins make vitamin D. The secret behind these top ten tips for healthier tanning is to make sure that the skin receives sunshine in healthy doses.

1. Gradually build up the amount of time you spend in the sun. Never burn your skin.

Sunlight consists of both UV-A and UV-B radiation. Most sunscreens protect against UV-A radiation. Most sunburns are caused by UV-B radiation. Many kinds of skin cancer get their start inside a burn. Even a single sunburn increases your lifetime risk of skin cancer. That's why it's so important never, ever to get a sunburn.

To prevent sunburn, build up your exposure to the sun gradually, starting with just 15 minutes a day, building up to several hours a day by the end of summer. And when you are going to be out in the sun for more than 15 minutes, be sure to protect your skin with a sunscreen that contains one of the compounds that prevents against UV-B radiation:

  • avobenzone,
  • homosalate,
  • menthyl anthralinate,
  • sulisobenzone,
  • trolamine salicylate.

The chemical names sound intimidating, but most of these skin-protective compounds are chemically related to Aspirin. The chemical that has been tied to skin damage, however, is benzophenone-3. Avoid it.

2. Avoid sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when it's brightest.

One of the most important tips for healthier tanning is to remember that if you can't go inside, a broad rimmed hat (protecting your neck and ears) and a cover-up for your shoulders is best. If you are spending a day on the beach, plan indoor activities for midday.

3. Use a sunscreen, and make sure it is the right SPF.

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection against sun. An SPF of 15, for example, protects your skin from burning up to 15 times the amount of exposure usually required for burning (which will vary according to your skin time). An SPF of 70 will protect your skin from 70 times as much sun as usually causes a burn.

In tropical climates, an SPF of 70 is usually needed if you have fair skin, and you'll need to use sunscreen all year round. If you live as far north as Europe or as far south as New Zealand, an SPF of 15 is fine for the summer, and you don't need sunscreen at all in the winter. Splashing water on your skin or perspiring, of course, reduce the effectiveness of skin protection.

In Australia, you will not be able to find sunscreens with an SPF higher than 30, and in the European Union you will not be able to find sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50. This is not because the sunscreens don't protect your skin with more than SPF 30 or SPF 50 protection, but because label laws do not permit claims for greater protection, even if the product offers greater protection. (The reason for the law is that regulatory agencies in these agencies wanted to prevent product competition on the basis of higher and higher SPF.) Simply choose the product with the highest available SPF.

4. Don't rely on sunlight for all your vitamin D.

Especially after the age of 50, the skin does not make as much vitamin D even with sun exposure. If you are over 50 and you don't use sunscreen, you do increase cancer risk when you burn, but you don't get the benefit of additional vitamin D. Taking up to 1,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D is a good idea.

If you live in a country where most vitamin supplements have been effectively banned, such as Denmark, then take cod liver oil. Cod liver oil capsules and flavored cod liver oil are equally effective. Don't take vitamin D without a doctor's OK if you have cancer, since high blood calcium levels can result.

5. Wear UV-protective lens, or don't wear sunglasses at all.

This tip for healthier tanning may save your sight: Sunglasses that are tinted but not UV-protective, however, actually increase the risk of developing age-related eye problems. That's because tinted lens block visible light but not the UV light that causes cataract. When you wear tinted lenses, the pupils of your eyes open wider to admit more visible light, and in the process your eyes are exposed to even more than normal UV light.

6. Use sunscreen every day if you are exposed to sun for more than 20 minutes.

This is especially important if you were frequently sunburned as a child, even moreso if you were sunburned before the age of one. The additional sun protection will slow or prevent the progression of old skin damage to skin cancer.

7. Remember, you need about an ounce (30 ml) of sunscreen for all-over protection when on the beach.

Just a dab of sunscreen will probably be OK for your face, neck, and forearms, but covering shoulders, legs, and torso requires a lot more for healthier tanning.

8. Don't forget to reapply sunscreen after you have been in the water.

And be very careful about burning while swimming, water skiing, or floating in a pool.
Water reflects the sun's rays back to your body in areas which ordinarily would be in the shadows, and cools the skin so that you do not notice that you are burning.

9. Protect injured skin from the sun.

The skin can need up to a year to repair itself after a wound, including resurfacing to remove wrinkles or acne scars. During that time, it is important to apply sunscreen prior to any sun exposure to allow the skin to reshape itself without new scarring.

10. Remember, you can also burn in a tanning bed.

Most tanning lamps emit both UV-A and UV-B light. Every year about 700 people in the United States alone have to be treated in hospital for burns received in tanning beds.

What about people whose need to tan overrides any concerns about healthy tanning? What about people who seem to be addicted to tanning?

Some of the latest scientific research finds that about 1/4 of the population has genetics that make them susceptible to a literal, physical addiction to tanning. In these individuals, the process of tanning releases opioid chemicals, the same chemicals that are released during gambling, skydiving, sex, shooting heroin, or eating fatty, sugary foods. In persons who have the genetics for getting a "high" from laying out in the sun or in a tanning bed, tremendous willpower is required to break a very real addiction.

  • Jones F, Harris P, Chrispin C. Catching the sun: an investigation of sun-exposure and skin protective behaviour. Psychol Health Med. 2000,5:131–141
  • Mosher CE, Danoff-Burg S. Social predictors of sunscreen and self-tanning product use. J Am Coll Health. 2005, 54:166–168
  • Nolan BV, Taylor SL, Liguori A, Feldman SR. Tanning as an addictive behavior: a literature review.Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2009, 25:12–19

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