It's officially summer. You want to get your glow on, but you know better than to do it the old-fashioned way.
In case you missed the memo, tanning is bad for you. Sure, the rays get you vitamin D. But so does milk. Even a so-called "baseline tan" is not OK, says Jerry Brewer, chair of dermatologic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Plain and simple: Tanned skin equals DNA damage, he says. "Asking what's a safe amount of tan is kind of like asking how much cyanide do you want in your breakfast."
Exposure to ultraviolet rays, from the sun or a tanning bed, not only ages skin, but ups the risk of skin cancer, says Thomas Rohrer, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. As he likes to tell his patients: "The only safe tan is the tan that comes out of a bottle."
With that in mind, meet your new best friends: sunscreen and fake bake.
Let's start with the latter, which dermatologists say have come a long way from the days of the orange-glow-in-a-bottle. "They made you look like you were from Mars or something," Brewer says. Today's products, and there are a bevy of them, provide a more natural glow. Primarily, they use an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, which dyes the skin and is considered safe for manual, external use. Spray tans, on the other hand, have raised concerns about the risk of ingesting chemicals and have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Then again, it's generally a good idea to avoid inhaling fumes of any kind, says Amy Newburger, a dermatologist in Scarsdale, N.Y. She explains that DHA works by reacting with keratin, or dead skin. This is why self-tanning products tend to glob up around areas where dead skin accumulates, like the knees or the palms of the hand, she says. The younger the skin, the faster it regenerates, and the more often re-application is needed, she says.
Those with a rosier cast to their skin might consider a self-tanner with erythrulose or raspberry sugar for a more natural look, Newburger adds. But in any case, she says it's not necessary to spend a bundle on these products when tanners sold at drugstores work just as well.
For the most even application, Miami dermatologist Debra Price recommends sloughing off the dead skin first. "It's important to exfoliate your skin so that it's smooth, and then you can apply the sunless tanning lotion."
Yet whether or not you go for a faux glow, you should wear sunscreen. Which one?
Whichever one you'll use, says Brewer of the Mayo Clinic.
Most people only apply half as much sunscreen as they need, which means half the sunscreen protection. "If we're only putting on half as much as we should, then it's going to last half as long as we think," Brewer says. Look for a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 35 that protects from UVA and UVB rays, he says, and re-apply every couple of hours.
Products with zinc oxide and titanium oxide block the sun through reflection, while other sunscreens absorb rays when they reach the skin, he explains. While some research suggests the latter could have harmful long-term effects, Brewer says people shouldn't "shy away from those just yet ... Even that type of sunscreen is much more beneficial than not having any kind of sunscreen on."
If you opt for a sunless tanner, Brewer says to make sure you're getting a product that tans sans the sun and not one that promotes tanning with it, he says.
And finally, if you're worried about getting vitamin D, don't be. Instead, take a supplement of about 800 international units, Brewer says. "It's one of these areas where it's not one or the other. You can have your vitamin D and protect yourself from the sun at the same time."