The Myth of the "Base Tan"

MakenzieR on 29 May 2012 at 4:00pm

tanning bed dangers

I grew up with a doctor-father who made me apply sunscreen by the book to protect my skin. Wait 30 minutes before sun or water. Reapply every two hours. Wear hats at the beach. Imagine my surprise ten years later when he's preparing for a trip to Fiji and is suddenly tan before he leaves.

"It's a base tan," he said. "My skin is so pale from winter -- this way I won't burn on our first day in Fiji."

It makes sense when you first think about it, and I've since heard many otherwise tanning-averse people say they were just "getting a base tan for vacation."

Indoor-tanning increases the risks of skin cancer and causes skin to age faster. But lately I've been pondering on this: do the benefits of getting a base tan to prevent sunburn outweigh the known risks of tanning beds?

I posed this to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and their answer is clear:

No. Numerous studies have shown that indoor tanning holds no benefits. Some of the false claims include that indoor tanning is a safe way to acquire needed Vitamin D or creates a “base tan” to protect against sunburn. Scientific studies have proven these claims to be untrue. “Base tans” do not protect against sunburns and only increase your risk of skin cancer.

Sunscreen, hats, clothing and other skin protection products are the only effective ways to protect your skin from sun damage.

I think my dad gave up his base tan belief a while ago, but I'm glad to have this information for my own good. It's never fun to think you'll be on a beach full of tan people with winter-white legs. But, that's what self-tanners and spray tans are for!

If you're ever feeling self-conscious about rocking a pale hue in a swimsuit, consider something else ASDS said:

"Most people consider tan skin to be healthy and youthful looking, but it’s just the opposite. It indicates the skin has been injured from UV rays that penetrate deeply and damage collagen and elastic tissue that give the skin elasticity."

Do you think un-tanned skin will ever be seen as healthier than a "healthy tan glow"?

sun tanning


Photo credit: Mark Carper/Deposit Photos; Olga Khoroshunova/Deposit photos

Comments (11)

Sort by

Ive been Indoor Tanning since 1987..... Im still here and in One Piece.. Luckily.. I suppose.... I never Over Exposed... I can say one thing.. Those folks that Tan only in the Summer at Fire Island or Jones Beach with Sunscreen for just those 3 Months in the Summers in NY tend to have Ruddy, and Sallow Dull Skin Complexions with Pigmentation Problems.... I've been lucky ( considering I have Medium Skin Tone and some Freckles) I can say this..... The Phosphors in The Bulbs and Minerals inside the Florescent Bulbs are Measured and Balanced to Emit a Certain type of Photon or Light Emission onto the Skin The SAME AMOUNT for the SAME AMOUNT of TIME EACH TIME. Its a Bit Controlled... Its a UVB & UVA Combo The UVA is very mild in the FLORESCENT BULBS ( which does permeate deeper) However . Ive had smooth silky evenly pigmentated skin , Delayed Pigmentation and Instant Pigmentation thats DEEP DARK RICH EVEN and LASTING... The REAL SUN Forget it.. TOTAL CHAOS on SKIN and Very Full of Variations and FREE RADICALS and more Surface Tanning on Skin which is Drying and Makes your skin look like SCAR TISSUE in a very short time. I dont have the TIME or PATIENTS to FRY in the REAL SUN AND its AN UNEVEN TAN ... Be done in 15 or 20 Min in Luxury to Achieve your Goal.. Then Enjoy it on Vacation or at the Beach... As for Spray Tanning... No way... Thats Staining your Skin with Self Tanning Deyhydroxyacetone...DHA.... No Thanks,,, No way to Tell if your Tan and looks Awful and I truly dont feel like I have a "Suntan" Well Blame Coco Chanel for all of this..! At some point I'll get a Geiger Counter to pass through to see if Im Radioactive before I leave my house... But so far so good..... Peace.....
  • Reply
Makenzie you are awesome! Thank you for sharing this vital sun tanning information with me, you've been so helpful. No more indoor tanning for me as well as outdoor tanning. I started to get a little concerned about tanning after many years of doing it, because recently a close friend of mind was diagnose with stage 3 melanoma skin cancer. Thanks again Makenzie for answering my question so thoroughly! Have a great day!! :))
  • Reply
Thanks for the info Makenzie! That's what I thought I just wanted to confirm.
  • Reply

Well like I said, I'm not positive if that's true! Just my own assumptions. I reached out to ASDS though to see what their take is. I'll keep you posted here. :)

  • Reply

Hey Hines,

Here's what I got from ASDS:

"Recent scientific articles back up the claim that indoor tanning is a serious and growing concern. A 2008 article in Dermatologic Surgery estimates that 20 minutes spent in a tanning salon is equivalent to 2-3 hours in the noontime sun, making the high concentration of carcinogenic UV radiation far more dangerous in indoor tanning."

With an emphasis that there is no "safe" way to tan, as you're doing damage to the skin regardless of how long/where you are exposing yourself to UVA/UVB.

Outdoor tanning is the lesser evil, but that doesn't mean it's not harmful for you. Hope this helps!

  • Reply
Tanning is bad regardless how you get it, but if you had to tan which is a little safer the natural sun rays or indoor tanning bed?
  • Reply

Hines, I cannot say this with medical authority, but I recall hearing that natural sun is safer. I think because of the intensity of exposure in tanning beds. I don't know for sure though. Will look into it!

  • Reply
The comparison of the tanning bed versus a natural tan is a good skin care subject. The use of tanning beds definitely increases the chance of getting skin cancer. I know a female whose family has a history of cancer. Cannot keep her off the tanning bed. Foolishness.
  • Reply

Great article! I love the look of being tan but wear a ton of sunscreen.....I wish tanning beds were safe....they feel so good on a cold winter day in Seattle....

  • Reply
I mystic tan (spray tan) and I've always wondered if there is any negative side effects with that. Also , when I do go on vacation I do get a 'base tan' because you can spend more time in the sun without getting as burnt then if you didn't build up a tan. When I used to use tanning beds in highschool I had to start off at 5 min and work my way up to 20. If I started at 20 I'd be fried! I agree tanning is bad but it feels sooo good!
  • Reply

I can't argue with you or KymE that it does feel great -- especially when you live in a cold climate. Perhaps my next question should be "if I go in a tanning booth with SPF 50 sunscreen on just to get warm, is that okay?"

  • Reply