A Healthy Way to Get a Base Tan

Truths vs myths of tanning beds and ways to get a tan naturally

Credits: Pixabay

Quick Summary:

  • There are a number of myths about tanning and we address those in this article
  • Learn about healthy ways to get a base tan
  • Base tans only offer slight protection of SPF of about 2-4

Sun-kissed. Sunbathing. Glowing. All terms of endearment designed to make your skin feel loved by the sun. Tanning has been a sensation since it was popularized in the 1930s and 40s. It’s been a fashion statement as something that is worn all the time and never seems to go out of style. Studies show that people that consider themselves as members of the “popular” crowd seek tanning behaviors more often.[1] Overall, about a third of adults have intentionally tanned.[2,3]  

However, the risks of tanning are clear. There is increased risk of skin cancers[4,5] and for skin aging.[6,7] Despite these known risks, many people engage in tanning, believing that there are health-related benefits. We explore some of the hype and truths of tanning further. 


Hype or truth: A base tan will protect you from a sunburn. 

The American Suntanning Association (ASA) states that a base tan can be protective from a sunburn.[8] A poll by showed that 9 out of 10 tanning business owners believe that a base tan protects from a sunburn.[9] The American Suntanning Association further goes on to state that a base tan can help multiply the effects of sunscreen by giving an example that a base tan can increase the SPF factor of the skin by 4 and that this will help multiply the protective effects of sunscreen by four times.[8]

Dermveda’s Integrative Content Team took a close look at the science behind this. It is true that a base tan in a fair-skinned person will approximately increase their SPF by a factor of about 4.[10] As the graph below shows, an SPF of 4 only blocks 75% of UV light. If an SPF 30 sunscreen is used it is true that a base tan will be helpful, but it will not be four times more protective. Because you get diminishing returns, you only increase the UV light blocking potential by about 30%. You are better off wearing sunscreen properly and getting the full protection of the sunscreen without bothering to get a base tan. 

Conclusion: Truth but misleading. A base tan offers a slight amount of protection against sunburn, but it should not be considered adequate sun protective behavior. If you are using sun protective habits appropriately, a base tan is not helpful. 


Hype or truth: Indoor tanning will improve your Vitamin D levels. 

There are several forms of ultraviolet light including type A, type B, and type C. Type C is blocked by the earth’s ozone layer and most of the ultraviolet light reaching earth is composed of type A (UVA) and type B (UVB). Vitamin D is produced in response to exposure to UVB. Most tanning beds emit UVA, which will not stimulate vitamin D production. However, there are a few tanning lamps that will emit in the UVB spectrum, and these lamps are capable of stimulating vitamin D3 production.[11] These lamps increase the risk for sunburns, and along with the UVA lamps, they both increase the risk for skin cancers.[4,5]  

Conclusion: Mostly hype with some truth. Most tanning bed lamps emit UVA which does not stimulate vitamin D production. There are some specific lamps that emit UVB, but these lamps can increase the risk for sunburns and skin cancers if there is overexposure. 


Hype or truth: Is there a healthy way to get a tan? 

The use of intentional sun exposure to get a tan is not a healthy way to get a tan. There are several ways to get a “healthy” tan.

1) Eat the right foods. Foods that are rich in naturally occurring carotenoids can lead to a slight tan in the skin.

2) Exercise outdoors in the morning or evening. Outdoor activities such as jogging, biking, and swimming can be a healthy way to get sunshine if done in conjunction with proper sun protective behaviors. It is best to exercise during the morning or evening hours when the sunlight is not as intense. It turns out that the UVA levels do not vary as much throughout the day as much as UVB.[12] This means that the relative amount of UVA present is increased in the morning and evening hours when the UVB levels tend to drop. Therefore, exercising in the morning and evening will still expose you to UVA rays without having as much exposure to the burning UVB rays. Because UVA rays still allow for the skin to tan, this is a relatively healthier way to get a tan. Remember to still wear your sunscreen even if you are exercising in the morning or evening to prevent the chance of sun overexposure. Sunscreens prevent sunburns but will not likely prevent tanning, as they do not completely block all UV light from getting to the skin.  

Conclusion: Truth. There are healthier ways to achieve a natural tan to the body while minimizing the risk for sunburns. Sunscreens should always be worn, and you may benefit from focusing on diet and exercise. 


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8. Accessed August 23, 2016.

9. Accessed August 23, 2016.

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12.    Eerme K, Aun M, Veismann U. Instrumentation and Measurement of Ground-Level Ultraviolet Irradiance and Spectral Composition. In: Bello SR, ed. Estonia, Solar Radiation Applications;10.5772/59615: InTech; 2015.