Sunbathing Safely

There is no such thing as a safe suntan; a suntan is a symptom of skin damage. That is the stance taken by most organisations promoting sun protection measures. However, a tanned skin is still regarded by many as a sign of health, or at least of a healthy, desirable lifestyle: one with access to travel and outdoor leisure activities. This is true of the white populations of ‘western’ cultures, at least.

There is also no denying that many enjoy bathing in the sun, letting the warmth of the sun soak into their bodies while they relax. Sunbathing can also be addictive, an indication of its mood-enhancing properties.

There is no evidence, however, of a tan as such being good for you; the main health benefits of sun exposure are vitamin D generation and mood enhancement, and neither of these require the exposure levels needed to develop a tan for effect.

The dangers of moderate sun exposure have also been exaggerated: outdoor workers, who receive prolonged exposure that builds up slowly as winter turns into spring and then summer, have a higher than average rate of non-melanoma skin cancers, particularly the least serious BCC type, but a lower than average rate of the most serious melanoma form. Melanoma is more strongly associated with intermittent, high intensity exposure, and especially sunburn.

Tan Gently

Therefore, if you want to develop a tan by bathing in the sun the safest way of doing so is to acquire it slowly and gently, a little at a time. Above all avoid burning your skin; don’t even come close.

In a temperate climate such as the UK, start early in the season, weather permitting, at the beginning of spring when the sun is weaker. In a sunnier climate, in or near the tropics, you may be able to bathe all year round but you should do so earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the strong midday sun, especially to start with. Even in a temperate climate, you should avoid bathing in the sun for an hour or two either side of solar noon in late spring and early summer, when the sun is at its strongest.

When first developing your tan, carefully limit the amount of time you spend bathing in the sun, and particularly how long you expose any specific part of your body for. You should be aiming for no more than a slight reddening or pinking of your skin. How long this will take will depend on your specific skin type and how strong the sun is at the time.

Stay aware of the passage of time while you are sunbathing: don’t get too engrossed in a book or other pastime, and certainly don’t allow yourself to fall asleep. If you loose track of time, you could easily end up with far too much exposure, possibly resulting in sunburn.

Once you have reached this stage in one bathing position, you can turn over to expose a different part of your skin, but be careful to avoid over-exposure to any overlap areas where your skin is exposed to the sun in both positions. After this, you should cover up or seek shade to prevent further exposure for the rest of the day.

You should not need to use aftersun products after such gentle exposure: if you do, then you’ve gone too far and come too close to developing a sunburn. It is also best to avoid washing your skin for an hour or so after sunbathing, to give your skin time to react properly to the sunlight it has just received. Once you have washed, however, use of a moisturiser is worthwhile.

Increase Slowly

After a few days of this, your tan should be developing nicely and you will be able to stay in the sun for longer, but you should increase your exposure slowly, by perhaps a few minutes every 3–4 bathing sessions. Also the increase cannot go on indefinitely – even a dark tan will only allow you to stay in the sun 3–4 times as long as your initial exposure.

Do not try to accelerate this process by lengthening your exposure times or seeking stronger sun (or artificial equivalent): doing so will significantly increase your risk of sunburn and serious skin cancers.

If you take care, however, and acclimatise your skin to the sun slowly and gently, you should be able to develop a natural tan reasonably safely, with only a minimal increase in your risk of developing serious skin cancer.

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