Are ‘Base Tans’ a Good Idea?

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Woman using Tanning Bed Photo: Simon Wilkinson/Getty Images

Memorial Day Weekend is here, marking the unofficial start of swimsuit season (or, if you prefer, caftan season). You might think that your pale, untanned skin is an eyesore, and you definitely don't want a repeat of that god-awful sunburn from last year. For a brief moment, you consider going to a tanning salon to give yourself a base. So we asked a dermatologist: Is it a good idea to get a base tan before hitting the beach?

What people refer to as a “base tan” is actually skin damage and doesn’t protect you from getting burned, according to Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Tanned skin (or even naturally dark skin) has a max SPF of 4. (Would you buy sunscreen with SPF 4?) Using a tanning bed and damaging your skin cells to get a very minimal protective effect is a terrible idea, Dr. Zeichner says.

"Getting a base tan is doubly harmful to your skin," he told the Cut. "First, you're exposing unprotected skin to UV light to get the base tan. Then you're likely not protecting your skin as well as you should later."

In fact, a 2013 study found that college students who used a tanning bed prior to spring break were slightly more likely to get a sunburn. Experts chalk it up to tanned people thinking they don’t need to wear sunscreen.

Drumbeat reminder: Not wearing sunscreen can lead to skin cancer. And experts recommend protecting your precious dermis further. "The safest way to avoid burning is exercising sun-protective behavior: applying and reapplying sunscreen, seeking shade during peak sun hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., wearing sun-protective clothing and broad-brimmed hats, and wearing UV-protecting sunglasses," Dr. Zeichner says.

If your main goal is not to appear like the desk-dweller you are, get a spray tan — and then lather on that sunscreen just as vigilantly. Skipping SPF can also lead to attractive signs of premature aging like wrinkles and brown spots.