Dermatologists Are Begging You to Stop Getting a Base Tan to Prevent Sunburn

"There isn't any kind of sunlight-based tan that is safe."

Despite what you may have heard, you can’t fix split ends, and antiperspirants don’t cause cancer. In Myth Busters, we debunk common beauty misconceptions and set the record straight.

Allow us to be candid—sunburns suck. Not only because they’re a clear indication of sun damage, but also because they hurt a lot. Then, there’s the inevitable skin peeling that comes afterward, which isn’t fun, either. Pretty much everything about getting a sunburn is a bad experience. But if you’ve been trying to get a base tan as a way to protect your skin from sunburn, we’re here to tell you it’s doing more harm to your skin than what meets the eye.

Base tans are a form of tanning that people assume helps prevent severe burning before a tropical vacation or beach trip. But the truth is, base tans are silently damaging your skin, and the only true form of protection is sunscreen. Keep reading to learn why the concept of a base tan is a myth we all need to stop believing ASAP.

What is a base tan?

According to Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, a base tan is getting a mild tan (either artificially or by sitting out in the sun) before more sun exposure in efforts to prevent serious sunburn. “It is estimated that a base tan is equivalent to SPF three or four, which means that it will take three or four times longer before the skin starts to burn,” says Dr. Levin. And while this may sound good in theory, to put it in perspective, cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi says you need to apply at least SPF 15 or 30 to truly protect your skin from harmful UV radiation. “Essentially, the risk of skin damage outweigh the little protection you get from base tans,” she says.

So, is a base tan harmful for your skin?

In short, yes. “Seeking out a base tan using indoor tanning or natural cumulative sun exposure is not wise for skin health,” says Dr. Alicia Zalka, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep. It’s a flawed concept that “does not give a person anywhere near the same protection of a typical SPF or wearing sun-protective clothing,” she says.

Being exposed to the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays can cause skin damage in the form of premature aging, sun spots, skin cancer, and more. Just because a tan may not hurt like a sunburn, it doesn’t mean you’re not doing the same damage. “A tan is the body’s way of responding to the damaging effects of ultraviolet response,” says Dr. Levin. “A tan is a stress response where the skin cells produce a pigment called melanin to protect it from further UV radiation damage.” 

If tanning is bad for you, why do people base tan?

There is little evidence that a base tan prevents sunburn, so why do people still do it? Well, because melanin actually can absorb the sun’s energy and act as a shield against the sun, but it isn’t enough. “Melanin is a protective pigment in skin that blocks UV radiation from damaging DNA and potentially causing skin cancer,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, M.D. Darker skin tones naturally produce more melanin, which is why they may age slower than fair skin tones because of that extra protection. That said, though, everyone (read: all skin tones) needs to wear sunscreen daily no matter what.

“Melanin does protect us, but it can only do so much, and if the melanin-producing skin cells are continuously stimulated from sun exposure, they can grow uncontrollably, potentially resulting in melanoma,” says Dr. Mariwalla. “In other words, there isn’t any sunlight-based tan that is safe.”

What are some alternatives to a base tan?

It’s best to avoid all forms of tanning to keep your skin healthy. Instead, opt for a sunscreen with broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher. You can also go with a moisturizer that’s infused with SPF to cut down some steps in your daily skincare routine. Just make sure you apply a generous amount and reapply throughout the day, just as you would with traditional sunscreen. Dr. Zalka also recommends wearing protective clothing, such as a hat or sunglasses, when staying outdoors for long periods.


StriVectin Super-C SPF 30 Vitamin C Moisturizer

Shop it Ulta

If you still want to get bronzed skin, you can do so safely with a self-tanner, says Dr. Mariwalla. One she recommends is the Vita Liberata’s Heavenly Elixir for its ability to give a natural-looking tan and glow all over the body. For your face, you can try a formula specifically made for the area, like Tan Luxe’s Super Glow Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum.  


TAN-LUXE Super Glow Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum

Shop it Sephora

Whatever method you choose, we can’t stress enough that base tans, unfortunately, aren’t a form of proper protection in any capacity. “It is easy to think you are immune to the whole thing, but please take the advice from a dermatologist that has seen so much in her practice of 25 plus years,” says Dr. Zalka. “Sun damage and skin cancer are real, and although you may not see the problem now, it can and will catch up to you.” Moral of the story? Wear sunscreen!

Filed Under