For years, the official word on tanning has been ... don't. Health organizations have driven home the message that the sun exposure needed to get a tan increases your chances of getting skin cancer. Recently researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston have conducted a series of experiments that put tanning in a different light. A suntan, they say, is the body's best effort to fend off the known cancerous effects of ultraviolet (UV) light, the invisible portion of the light spectrum that penetrates the skin and mutates DNA, reports the July 2007 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.
So, if tans are protective, should we toss our SPF 45 and become sun worshippers? No. The researchers are emphatically on the side of sunscreen and avoidance of excessive sun or other UV exposure. But they're also looking for ways to harness the "tanning pathway" that might give fair-skinned people the protective benefits of having a tan without going through the hazards of getting one. The safe tan would be one produced by activating the skin's tanning process without running the risk of the DNA damage that occurs with exposure to UV light, either naturally from the sun or artificially at a tanning salon.
It's unclear if truly safe UV exposure can ever be achieved. The Harvard Health Letter suggests that for now, your best bet is to avoid excessive UV light exposure—especially if you're blond or redheaded and don't tan well, but also if you do. And use sunscreen.