Harvard Women's Health Watch

Why suntanning is still a bad idea

Sun protection is essential whenever you are outdoors. Self-tanning products offer a safe alternative for attaining that sun-kissed look.

suntanning sunless tanning
Image: Nadezhda1906/Thinkstock

Gone are the days when we were urged to soak up the rays to get a healthy glow and absorb the "sunshine vitamin." Decades of medical research have determined that sun exposure causes skin cancer and that a nutritious diet and supplementation are reliable ways to obtain the vitamin D essential for good health. In other words, there is no good reason to expose your skin to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

There is no such thing as a healthy suntan. "A tan is a response to DNA damage," says Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, a dermatologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Such damage is instrumental in the development of skin cancer, and it also accelerates skin aging. "Some women may tan well for many years, but eventually the skin quality will change, become leathery, develop lentigenes ["age spots"], and then coarse wrinkling," Dr. Gilchrest says. If you're a lifelong tanner, compare the skin on the underside of your upper arm or buttocks to a tanned area, and you'll see evidence of the changes wrought by UV radiation.

The best advice is still to do everything you can to protect your skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure and reduce your risk of skin cancer. The following tips may help.

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