Ah, the myth of the ‘base tan.’ Like Bonnaroo and flip-flops, the concept of the base tan appears in the summer and is enthusiastically endorsed by a subset of confused people with dubious hygiene standards.
The idea that you can stave off a severe sunburn by getting a moderately less severe sunburn is immensely appealing, a way for the pasty to venture forth into the sunlight under the auspices of controlled preparation and hazard management. Alas: It is a lie.
The Cut asked a dermatologist about base tans and, surprise, they are not good for your skin, nor do they prevent sunburn.
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.
Getting exposed to ultraviolet radiation doesn’t make your skin develop a tolerance for ultraviolet radiation; base tans are not some sort of topically administered sunshine vaccine, as Scientific Americanrecently pointed out.
A base tan only provides an SPF, or sun protection factor, of 3 or less, according to the U.S. surgeon general. For beachgoers, that means if a person would normally turn pink after 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF 2 base tan would theoretically buy her another 10 minutes-or 20 minutes in total-before she burns. That, says David Leffell, the chief of dermatologic surgery and cutaneous oncology at Yale University School of Medicine, is “completely meaningless” in terms of providing protection.
Skin cells darken in response to damaged DNA. While extra melanin can look good, it just means that you’ve already done bad things to your skin cells. It doesn’t mean you’re safer from doing more damage to your skin cells.
Yes, your skin darkens to protect itself from more damage. But developing an initial layer of pigment won’t stop you from getting an extremely severe burn if you lay out without sunscreen all day.
The only doctors who actually endorse using tanning beds to get a ‘base tan’ are quacks like ‘alternative medicine’ blogger Dr. Mercola, who also says that bras can give you cancer.