Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Tan?

That “sun-kissed” look. That “golden glow.” That subtle bronzing as you “get your vitamin D.” It all comes down to one thing—DNA damage.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is your skin’s way of increasing the production of melanin (a dark pigment) in your skin to protect it from further damage from the sun. It is your skin’s army being sent out to face the onslaught of ultraviolet radiation.

The problem is, this army isn’t a very effective one. While many people think that getting a “base tan” will protect them from sunburns, the fact is your tanned skin is a sign that the skin has already been harmed and it is desperately trying to prevent further damage. Your base tan only offers an SPF of between 2 and 4 (not even close to the recommended SPF of 30 or 50 that you get from sunscreen).

Meanwhile, your skin has been damaged on a molecular level, making lasting changes to your DNA that cause photoaging and, potentially, skin cancer.

What happens when you get a tan? Let’s take a look.


Unlike normal aging, which is dictated by time and genetics, photoaging is an acceleration of the aging process through exposure to ultraviolet light. This UV exposure physically damages the skin’s structure and causes you to appear older than you should. If you are a lifelong tanner, you can see the difference by comparing the underside of your arm to the tanned areas of your skin. It’s easy to see which area looks smoother and younger.

Signs of photoaging include:

  • Wrinkles
  • Freckles, age spots, liver spots (solar lentigines)
  • Rough skin texture
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Spider veins (broken capillaries) on the nose and chest
  • Blotchiness or redness

UVA and UVB Rays

Two types of UV light cause photoaging. UVA rays damage collagen and elastin fibers throughout all layers of the skin, robbing skin of its youthful tautness and elasticity. UVA radiation also damages skin cells and tiny blood vessels called capillaries.

UVB rays affect the outer layers of the skin, damaging DNA in the epidermis and causing visible photoaging. UVB rays also promote the development of precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses.

Tanning and Skin Cancer

Most skin cancers are caused by UV exposure. The more UV exposure over the time, the more damage to the skin. This is why people who have spent a lot of time in the sun, received sunburns, or used tanning beds are more likely to develop skin cancer.

People with pale skin, light-colored eyes, and blond or red hair are most at risk of developing skin cancer. People with medium skin who sometimes burn are also at a higher risk. Although people with darker skin tones may have the lowest risk, they still can and do develop skin cancer. It is important to know that people of any skin tone can get skin cancer.

What About Vitamin D?

Many people cite the body’s need for vitamin D as a reason to spend time in the sun. Science, however, has shown us that it’s not worth the risk. Your body can obtain the necessary vitamin D from foods and supplements without putting you at risk for skin cancer. Also, in a climate like Arizona’s, very little time is needed in the sun to meet the body’s vitamin D requirements. Just 15 minutes a day of regular exposure on your face, hands, and arms is usually enough.

If You Already Have Sun Damage

The only healthy tan is one that comes out of a bottle or sprayer, not from exposure to sun or tanning beds. If you’ve spent years in the sun, had sunburns in the past, or frequented a tanning bed even once, it is important to get annual skin checks by a dermatologist to catch any signs of skin cancer. Your dermatologist can offer treatments to minimize the results of photo-aging, as well. At Arizona Dermatology, we offer chemical peels, microdermabrasion, intense pulsed light treatments, and more.