Does a "Base Tan" Really Protect You from Sunburns?

You may want to think twice before you hit the tanning beds before your beach vacation.

Back when you were a teen, your parents probably taught you not to believe everything you read on the internet. But what they didn't tell you was to be skeptical of the old wives' tales about sun exposure, including the belief that getting a so-called "base tan" can protect against sunburns.

So, is the idea of building sun-kissed skin to fend off painful burns in the future too good to be true? Here's what a dermatologist wants you to know about base tans before you book it to the tanning salon or lay out in your backyard.

Are Base Tans Actually Beneficial?

First things first, you need a quick rundown on what a sun tan actually is. ICYDK, there are two types of ultraviolet radiation (UV) rays that can reach the Earth's surface: UVB rays, which mostly affect the skin's surface and are the primary cause of sunburns, and UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin. When your skin is exposed to and damaged by UVA rays — including in tanning beds — it creates more melanin (aka skin pigment) to protect itself from further harm, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Not only does the boost of melanin give you that sought-after glow, but it's also thought that it can provide an additional layer of protection against the sun and sunburns, which is where the idea of a base tan comes from, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D, a dermatologist based in New York City.

The problem: A base tan isn't all that beneficial. Some studies have shown that a tans offers up to an SPF 3 or SPF 4 three days after exposure to UVB rays, and the protection against sunburn gradually declines over time. "But the amount of UV that can penetrate when you're getting an SPF of 3 or 4 is significantly more than what's able to penetrate when you're using something with an SPF 30 or above," she says. You don't see any sunscreens on the market for SPF 4 for that reason — it's basically worthless when it comes to protecting you from damaging rays — which can cause a host of problems for your skin, eyes, and more. For reference, a sunscreen with a SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays from hitting your skin, she explains. "[A base tan] may offer some slight protection, but it's certainly not sufficient and it's certainly not considered an effective way to truly prevent a sunburn," she adds.

Not to mention, sunburns are just one of the many health risks that come with sun exposure. The UVA rays that make your skin golden can also induce DNA damage that can lead to photoaging, causing fine lines and wrinkles that may take years to become visible, as well as some skin cancers, says Dr. Garshick. Similarly, UVB rays damage DNA and are thought to be the cause of most skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. TL;DR: "If you get a base tan, even in a perfect scenario when it does reduce the risk of a potential [future] burn — which, again, is not an effective way to prevent a burn — you're still getting a ton of other negative effects from the sun and from the UV radiation," she explains. "You always want to be mindful of those things." (Take this as your reminder to check out your moles for signs of skin cancer.)

This is particularly important to mention to those who build their base tan through indoor tanning methods, says Dr. Garshick. Most people view sunburns as a sign their skin got too much UV radiation, but when you pop out of the tanning bed and see only radiant, darker-toned skin, you might not think you're doing any real harm. "People see the glow, so they see what they think of as an immediate benefit, but those long-term consequences and implications don't necessarily show up right away," says Dr. Garshick. "People don't realize that even getting a tan is doing damage to your skin."

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How to Get Tan Safely

If you want to prevent a lobster-red burn — as well as skin cancer and the symptoms of premature aging — while on your next vacation, forget about the idea of a base tan, says Dr. Garshick. Instead, she recommends slathering on a broad-spectrum sunscreen (meaning it protects against UVB and UVA rays) with an SPF of 30 or higher 20 minutes before you head out into the sun. Aim to use 1 ounce of sunscreen — roughly one shot glass-worth — for your whole body, then re-apply at least every two hours, she explains. (These sunscreen sticks make application easy AF.)

To further minimize your odds of developing sun damage, stay out of the sun from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which is when it's most intense; opt for clothing with a high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating, which refers to the amount of UV radiation that a fabric allows to reach your skin; and stay in the shade if you can, she says. "The more sun protection strategies you can employ, the better your skin will be," says Dr. Garshick. "[For example,] being under an umbrella and wearing sunscreen is going to be more effective than either one alone."

Even with these protection measures, there are still workarounds to getting that confidence-boosting glow. Sunless tanners can give you a sun-kissed look without causing the skin damage you'd get from UV exposure. For quick results, Dr. Garshick suggests body mousses such as St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse (Buy It, $32,, Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Body Mousse (Buy It, $10,, and Isle of Paradise Glow Clear Self-Tanning Mousse (Buy It, $29, You can also rub in tanning moisturizers, such as Jergens Natural Glow Sunless Tanning Lotion (Buy It, $8,, which will slowly darken your skin over a few days. And if you're all about a good deal, apply a few pumps of the Supergoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 40 (Buy It, $38,, which is a self tanner-sunscreen combo.

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St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse

St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse
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Jergens Natural Glow Sunless Tanning Lotion

Jergens Natural Glow Sunless Tanning Lotion
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Supergoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 40

Supergoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 40

No matter which sunless tanner you choose, Dr. Garshick recommends reading the directions and ingredient label carefully. Some products contain DHA (dihydroxyacetone), an ingredient that can actually make your skin more sensitive to the sun within the first 24 hours of application, she explains. So if your mousse says to wait a day after applying to head out to the beach, take those instructions seriously. (

Of course, there's nothing wrong with passing on the self-tanners, steering clear of the sun altogether, and opting to embrace the skin tone you were blessed with instead. Because at the end of the day, "there's no such thing as a safe tan," says Dr. Garshick.

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