How to Get Your Skin Tanned Safely

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For many centuries, an essential sign of beauty was clear, white, unblemished skin that appeared to have never been touched by the sun. This stemmed from the fact that it was a mark of wealth, privilege, and leisure to give the appearance of not ever having to toil outdoors.


After all of those generations of protecting the skin from exposure to sunlight with layers of clothing, hats, and parasols, all changed during the 1920s, when fashion trendsetter Coco Chanel was photographed during a yachting trip in the French Riviera in 1923 sporting tanned shoulders, bronzed cheeks, and a lightly freckled nose. Suddenly, the idea of beauty associated with privilege and leisure took a dramatic 360-degree turn. Clearly, the real sign of health and wealth was for your skin to sport a golden glow to show the world that you have time to engage in healthy outdoor activities and to lounge by the pool or at the beach.

safe sun tanning


From the 1920s until today, we have associated golden, tanned skin with the ideal of youth, health, and beauty. This ideal look persists, despite the fact that it has long been proven how damaging it is to lay our skin vulnerable to the prolonged UV ray exposure necessary to achieve the look of a beach-bronzed beauty, or a rugged, healthy, outdoorsy man.


Since it seems this trend isn’t going away any time soon, are there safer alternatives to getting the golden glow that we want without having to slather on the baby oil and sunbathe?

According to skincare experts, there are several options to achieve this look without the sun-damage and possibility of skin cancer that we’d like to avoid.


Indoor Tanning


Skin turns a tanned, golden color when exposed for prolonged periods to UV light rays because the melanin produced by skin cells is triggered to produce more of the darker pigmentation in order to protect the skin from burning. Unfortunately, the reaction can’t be triggered by the sun or artificial UV light without incurring damage. UV rays penetrate deep into the skin and cause damage to the DNA inside skin cells. This can later become visible in sunspots, fine lines, wrinkles, a leathery appearance, and skin cancer. According to dermatologists, there is no safe way to tan your skin with any form of UV light. The very fact that your skin changes color at all means that it is being damaged.

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Beginning in 1979, tanning beds became commercially available and were at first widely accepted as safer for your skin than outdoor tanning. It has since been proven that indoor tanning in a tanning bed is just as damaging to the skin as outdoor tanning, with even a single indoor tanning session increases the risk of developing all types of skin cancer by significant percentages.


However, indoor tanning beds do possess some factors that can minimize some potential risks to the skin. For example, it’s rare to burn in a tanning bed because the amount of UV exposure is regulated, rarely resulting in accidental burns. Developing a sunburn from outdoor tanning is a much more frequent development.


You can offer your skin more protection during the tanning process while tanning indoors. There are very good indoor tanning lotions that hydrate the skin while you tan. Many of them contain bronzing pigments to hasten a tan while simultaneously offering further protection from burning.

You can further protect and soothe your skin after an indoor tanning session by keeping it hydrated and moisturized. This will also help to prolong your tan by keeping the tanned skin cells healthier for longer periods of time before they die and slough off.


Spray Tan


According to dermatologists, the only safe tan is one which does not involve any UV ray exposure at all, either indoors or out. Fortunately, this can be achieved through self-tanners. These work through the use of either naturally derived or chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA) which interact with the amino acids in skin, causing them to generate melanoidins, which appear brown due to the way they absorb and reflect light. This reaction in the cells generates a distinctive odor, which is why all self-tanning products produce a scent, though it may be masked with fragrance.

For a spray tan session, you generally book an appointment and then remove either all clothing or strip down under-things. Often disposable underwear is available for the process. The therapist will generally ask you how deeply you want to tan. Once you’ve made your preference known, you will be shown into a tanning tent and the therapist will systematically apply a self-tanner to you with a spray device that ensures an even, natural-appearing tan. You will be directed to change positions several times while you are being sprayed.

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A professional spray tan may last up to ten days. Arriving with your skin recently exfoliated and moisturized will help your spray tan to last longer.

Self-Tanning at Home


For those who prefer to tan from the comfort of their own homes, and without UV ray damage, there is a variety of great sunless tanners that can be easily applied at home with results which have improved remarkably with newer, better formulas. While the first sunless tanners often resulted in orange-toned skin due to the DHA reaction’s tendency to produce more yellow pigment and less red than a natural tan, today’s formulas have been tweaked to better imitate the rosy golden glow of a true suntan.


For the best at-home results from your sunless tanner, exfoliate your skin thoroughly, paying special attention to rough areas such as knees, elbows, and ankles. Exfoliating will help to ensure a more even tan and will extend the life of your sunless tan.


Moisturize prior to applying your sunless tan, but not immediately before. It’s best to exfoliate and moisturize the night before you plan to tan. Alternatively, you can do so in the morning and apply tanner in the evening. Moisturizing promotes a strong skin barrier, and this may inhibit the absorption of your sunless tanner.


Apply your sunless tanning spray, cream, mousse, or lotion in smooth even strokes, being careful not to miss spots and to go lightly over ankles, knees, and elbows. Best results are achieved by using a tanning mitt or glove designed for even spreading of product. Work your way upward beginning with the feet.


No matter how you choose to apply it, a faux glow is always far safer than a true suntan.

Resources — Harvard Health Publishing,, BodyGlow, Cosmopolitan