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Get the Best Tan Safely

Well it's summer - time to put away those bulky sweaters and whip out your newest tankini/Speedo. But there's one problem: you're so pale that mimes are hailing you as their new leader. You definitely need a little bit of color, but you're also worried about going outside with all of those dangerous UV rays raining down on you.

We have to make one thing crystal clear: there is no such thing as a "safe" tan. By going out in the sun unprotected, you risk:
  • Getting wrinkly early-aged skin
  • Getting nasty, painful sunburns
  • Getting skin cancer
This year, 56,900 new cases of skin cancer will be reported; most of these people (not so coincidentally) don't take care of their skin when out in the sun. So how can you get a relatively safe tan? Did you not read the name of this SYW? We're about to tell you, so sit tight and read on.

"So," you're thinking, "what's the difference between SPF and UV index? And why do I need to know? I want to score a tan, not enter a science fair." Here's the answer: if you truly want to develop your inner George Hamilton, you have to learn the lingo. The first step in becoming a golden god or goddess is to figure out what all those strange abbreviations mean.
  • Tanning
  • UV Index
  • SPF
  • Sunscreen vs. Sunblock

Providing a definition of "tanning" isn't as stupid as it seems. A tan occurs when the skin absorbs ultraviolet radiation (commonly called "UV rays"). As a response, the skin produces a substance known as melanin, which darkens the skin's outer layers. While many believe that a tan makes us appear healthier, a tan is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged. It's similar to the beginning stages of a burn.

UV Index
"UV index" is just a fancy term given to the way scientists measure how much ultraviolet radiation is hitting the earth's surface at a given point in the day. UV is an invisible light that is always present, though in varying degrees. There are actually two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. They're both bad, so you'll want to make sure that your tanning products specify that they guard against both.

The actual index is measured from 0 to 10+, so if you're considering sunbathing, it's a good idea to flip on the weather channel or check out a map and see the day's UV index. The higher the number on the index, the greater the amount of exposure you will have to ultraviolet radiation. So you MUST be careful of the sun on days with a high UV index. If you stay in the sun too long, you will burn and peel and then you will be beached like a whale cause it will hurt to move.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. All sunscreens are given a number between 4 and 30 so you'll have to determine which one is best for you. Most dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 15. However, the level of protection a person needs is usually based upon his/her tanning history. For example, people with pale complexions who should shoot for a SPF of 30, while people with darker complexions may need a SPF of as little as 4. To be safe, its always best to ask a pharmacist which SPF would work best for you. And since most drugstores have pharmacists, you can get this info for free. Good thing too, since you'll probably need extra dough to buy all the beer that you'll likely find on sale in the aisle next to the sunblock.

Sunscreen vs. Sunblock
While most people lump sunscreen and sunblock together, they are actually very different products intended for different uses.

Sunscreen is a cream or lotion that is SPF rated. It reacts with the skin to create an invisible barrier against the sun. The strength of the barrier is determined by the SPF number. The lower the number the less protection. Most sunscreens should be applied 20 minutes before you go outside so that it has time to work. Using a sunscreen will not prevent you from tanning but it will lower your risk of getting burned.

Sunblock doesn't have a SPF because it protects the body from all UV rays. Usually, sunblock is a thick cream that should contain zinc oxide (this is the white gunk that you sometimes see people put on their noses - it's funny looking, but it's strong). Okay here's where it gets tricky. Some sunscreens with SPF numbers of 15 or higher are erroneously refereed to as sunblocks. If you want a sunblock, don't buy a package with a SPF listed because a true sunblock won't need it.


Since your goal is to tan but not burn, you need to take a couple of minutes to figure out your sun risk factor. Your ego will love this test since it involves only you and your habits:

The first thing you have to do is determine what kind of skin you have. If you're old enough to be reading this, chances are you've figured out by now whether your light or dark skinned. This is important since people with fair skin and light colored eyes have to take extra precautions not to get burned (most fair people can burn within 15 minutes… and that's not fair!). The darker you are the more exposure to the sun you can handle without getting burned.

The next step is to figure out how close you live to the equator. Don't worry, you don't have to figure it out to the precise latitude and longitude - just know the rule of thumb that the closer you live to the equator, the more likely you are to get sunburned.

It's a good idea to take care while vacationing at high altitudes. While the short term high at high altitudes may be appealing, UV radiation increases about 5% for every 1,000 feet above sea level you go.

Once you know where you live and what you look like, the next step is to make a list of all the drugs you're taking (at least the legal ones). Most medications contain chemicals that cause the skin to be more reflective of UV rays. For example, antibiotics, antihistamines, oral contraceptives, tricyclic antidepressants and most acne medications will cause your skin to burn rather than tan. If you think some medication you are taking may fall into one of these categories, use a sunscreen with a higher SPF. It's the safe and prudent thing to do. George Bush would be proud.


Okay, the goal here is to tan safely but since we already know that is impossible, we can at least figure out how to avoid getting burned. There is a pretty common myth that a sunburn will fade into a tan. Like the urban legend of pop rocks + soda = exploding stomach, this has no basis in reality. A sunburn is actually a bunch of broken blood vessels that form on top of a tan. While it is especially bad to suffer from sunburns before the age of 21 since it increases your odds of skin cancer, a sunburn at any age can have serious side effects. These effects include loss of skin moisture, loss of elasticity and the formation of sunspots on the skin. So to make sure you get a tan Frankie and Annette would be proud of, you need to take some precautions:

Try to avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., since that's when UV rays are at their strongest.

Make sure that your sunscreen is waterproof. If you're thinking you don't need sunscreen because you will be swimming, think again. UV rays can reach up to nine feet in water and it will be harder to feel your skin burn as you swim.

Reapply sunscreen every 20 minutes.

Apply sunscreen on days that look overcast too, since clouds are able to block only 20% of radiation.

The clothes you wear can also have an impact upon whether you burn or tan. When not swimming, it's important that you wear loose fitting clothes that aren't transparent. Stick with light colors since dark clothes attract the sun. This is also your chance to go dramatic since most dermatologists recommend wearing a hat in the sun.

Of course, no sun-worshipping outfit would be complete without a pair of sunglasses. The sunglasses you buy don't have to be expensive, but they should be able to block all UVA and UVB radiation. If you can't tell, don't buy them. Exposing your eyes to the sun can result in vision loss and damage to the cornea. Besides, everyone looks good in sunglasses, so make sure you get a pair you like.

If you do get a sunburn, you should treat it immediately


Getting a "fake bake" is a lot like getting special entry into Dracula's crypt (minus the blood and bats). The general process involves you climbing into an enclosed chamber where you will lie for a specified period of time. The person in charge of the tanning beds will then set a time limit for your first session. Usually each session is increased by two-minute intervals. Most beds are equipped with fans so you won't feel too heated. Most tanning salons start to offer bargains during the summer months (since people can go outside and do it for free).

While this is a great way to get a tan without worrying too much about burning, there are some precautions you'll want to take:

Make sure the tanning salon has a disinfecting policy. Lots of people will be in the tanning chambers sweating away so if the salon doesn't disinfect your skin could easily become irritated.

Make sure that the salon has you fill out a Skin Type Analysis Form. This is a simple form that takes less than a minute to fill out. The form is used to determine how your skin reacts to tanning.

If you're taking medications, be sure to tell the salon staff. They may affect your sensitivity to the tanning beds.

Get a pair of FDA regulated goggles. Don't worry about getting raccoon eyes. The goggles protect the eyeball and since the eyelids don't tan, you won't be able to notice you had them on. Depending upon the salon, you'll either need to buy these beforehand or you'll be able to borrow a pair at the front desk, so call ahead to find out the salon's policy.

One quick note: Tanning beds are far from being skin-friendly. In fact, most health experts agree that the use of tanning beds increases a person's risk of skin cancer. When a person uses a tanning bed, more layers of the skin are damaged than when a person gets a tan from just being out in the sun. Still, if you're willing to take the risk with your skin, tanning beds do offer some benefits. You'll be able to control what kind of ultraviolet light your skin receives, you won't get sunburned, and your progress will be monitored.


Fake tanners have gotten a really bad rap over the years and for good reason: they can look fake. Luckily, these products have gone through significant improvements in recent years. The new brands of self-tanners are virtually streak-proof, and some even come with built-in SPF. Self-tanners do not injure the skin and you'll be able to pick out the exact shade of tan you want. There are a bunch of options available in self-tanners. You can choose between gels, lotions or sprays. Be careful though. Just because your skin will be golden, doesn't mean you won't burn. So keep applying that sunscreen whenever you go in the sun. Applying a self-tanner is virtually idiot proof. How else do you think all those pro wrestlers get that bronzed look? If they can do it, so can you.

The first thing you'll need to do is exfoliate. For those of you who don't subscribe to Vogue, this simply means getting rid of all the dead cells on your body. This will help the tanner to go on more evenly. To exfoliate, merely go to a beauty supply store or drug store and get an exfoliation kit or loofah sponge.

Make sure your body is completely dry before applying the tanner. If there is any moisture, the tanner may come out blotchy.

Try to find a brand that you can see going on (read: the cream itself should be colored, not clear) so that you won't miss any areas.

The next thing you'll have to do is apply the tanner:
Get a pair of surgical gloves, preferably latex - they'll help keep your hands from getting stained.

If applying a cream, use upward strokes on all of the body except the chest area.

For the chest, horizontal strokes will help keep the coverage balanced.

To avoid dark stripes, use less of the tanner on joints such as the knees and the elbows.

Wait about 20 - 25 minutes, and you'll look like you've been sun bathing for days. Besides, with all the hours you'll save not having to bake yourself in the sun.

Scooby Doo, where are you?
Beautiful baskets for everyone!