OK, But Is Sunbathing Really THAT Bad? Here's The Realistic Answer

Many people incorrectly believe that tanning is safe as long as you don’t burn. Here's what you need to know.
Photo by Pietro Izzo via Getty Images

Lying on the beach or poolside striving to get a golden tan may be one of your favourite summer activities — even though you probably know getting too much sun is risky, especially if you don’t take the right precautions.

While dermatologists urge caution about spending time in the sun, they recognise that people are still likely going to sunbathe. About two-thirds of Americans said they got a tan last year, and many incorrectly believe a base tan will prevent sunburns and that tanning is safe as long as you don’t burn, according to a new American Academy of Dermatology survey.

“Regardless of past sunburns, the fact that ultraviolet light causes skin cancer, including melanoma, people are still going to sunbathe this summer,” said Dr. Hope Mitchell, an Ohio-based board-certified dermatologist. “It’s crucial to recognise these risks and others that are related to sunbathing.”

Even short periods of sun exposure and minor sunburns can add up over time and damage your skin, she said.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Hale, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, told HuffPost. It can affect anyone of any skin tone, and it’s often diagnosed in later stages in people with darker skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

However, skin cancer is preventable, Hale said. “It’s easy to apply a sunscreen you like, stay in the shade as much as possible, and enjoy the summer with peace of mind.”

As you plan your next beach trip, here’s what you should know about how bad sunbathing truly is and the best way to protect your skin as you spend time outdoors.

How risky is sunbathing?

Basking in the sun can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre and trigger the release of endorphins, also known as “feel-good hormones,” explained Dr.Carmen Castilla, a board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group. “People can actually become addicted to the sun.”

But when your skin is exposed to the sun, it absorbs ultraviolet radiation, Mitchell said. This damages the DNA in your skin cells, which speeds up the aging process, leading to wrinkles and sun spots and increasing your risk for skin cancer.

Melanin, a chemical that produces pigment in your skin, protects against UV damage, Castilla said. So when your skin tans in the sun, it’s actually a sign that the skin is trying to protect itself from further UV damage.

“But it’s a flawed defense mechanism that ultimately puts your skin health at risk,” Mitchell said. “While a tan might give you a temporary glow, it’s not worth the long-term consequences.”

UV radiation is a known carcinogen, and overexposure is what causes skin cancer, Hale said.

“We know that getting five or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma,” a dangerous form of skin cancer, she added. Melanoma is considered more dangerous because it can easily spread to other organs if it’s not treated early.

Castilla said there’s a misconception that because people with darker skin tones have higher amounts of melanin, they don’t develop skin cancer or get sunburned.

“This is entirely not true,” she emphasized. Anyone, no matter their skin tone, is at risk for skin cancer or sunburns from sun exposure.

There is a belief that Black skin's melanin provides natural protection from the sun's UV rays. It doesn't.
Steve Mason via Getty Images
There is a belief that Black skin's melanin provides natural protection from the sun's UV rays. It doesn't.

The sun isn’t the best source of vitamin D

There’s been lots of talk about vitamin D lately, as many Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, research shows.

While sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, dermatologists say spending time in the sun isn’t the most effective way to increase your intake of the vitamin. And you should never forgo sunscreen. Research shows that wearing sunscreen likely doesn’t interfere with the skin’s vitamin D production.

Always approach sun exposure with skin cancer prevention in mind, Hale emphasised.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) doesn’t recommend relying on the sun or indoor tanning to get vitamin D. Instead, the organisation suggests food sources, such as dairy and fish, or supplements to increase your intake.

Dermatologists suggest using self-tanners instead

If a “sun-kissed glow” is your goal, Mitchell suggests a sunless tanning option, including spray tans and self-tanners. “These products provide a bronzed look without exposing your skin to harmful UV radiation,” she said.

Self-tanning products with dihydroxyacetone (DHA) or erythrulose react with the top layer of skin to temporarily tan the skin, Castilla said. Some are labeled “gradual tan,” which means they contain lower concentrations of these substances and let you build colour, she added.

Look for products that “prioritise skin health, since moisturised, smooth skin will look the best,” Hale said. She suggests items containing natural oils and hyaluronic acid.

Be sure to follow the directions on the product for the best results, Mitchell said.

But if you’re going to sunbathe, here’s what to do

“When it comes to chilling by the pool or soaking up some extra sunshine outdoors, it’s all about balance and protection,” Mitchell said.

That starts by wearing a generous amount of sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, she said. Look for sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection, which means they guard against both UVA and UVB rays, Hale added.

Don’t forget to smear sunscreen on the tops of your ears, back of your neck, bottoms of your feet, or any other area that’s exposed to the sun, Castilla said. “There’s nothing worse than walking on sunburned feet.”

Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or more frequently if you’re swimming, sweating or towel-drying your skin, Mitchell said.

Along with sunscreen, take breaks in the shade and wear sun-protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, Hale said. And drink plenty of water.

“Lastly, give your skin some love by checking for any changes regularly,” Mitchell said. “Your skin is your body’s largest organ, so treating it with care and protection is paramount for overall health and well-being.”