This is what actually happens to your skin when you get a tan
Just because you don’t burn doesn’t mean your skin’s getting off scot-free.
After spending a long summer day basking in the sun, most of us would count it as a success if we went home with a deep tan and not a bright red, painful burn. But as we all know by now, sun exposure is dangerous. And that “healthy bronze glow” of yours? Sorry, but that counts as skin damage, too.
“The body does not create a tan to be pretty—there is no evolutionary advantage of that,” Aleksandar Sekulic, M.D., principal for Stand Up To Cancer’s Melanoma Research Alliance Dream Team and Mayo Clinic dermatologist, tells SELF. “Rather, tanning is a direct response to the mutations that occur in our DNA.” Translation: Your skin is being damaged on a cellular level and that microscopic damage is what can ultimately lead to cancerous growths.
When your skin cells are threatened by the UV rays coming at them from the sun, they kick into protection mode, distributing darker pigment cells (melanocytes) to those cells on the surface. The pigment blocks UV radiation from hitting cells’ most valuable parts. “What the cells do with this pigment they received as a gift is pile it all on top of the cell’s nucleus, like an umbrella,” Sekulic explains. When pigment piles up, your skin looks tanner. The more threatened your skin is, the more it works to form pigment shields. That’s why you get darker the longer you stay out.
People with lighter skin tones typically cannot create as much pigment, and what they do create isn’t as efficient, Sekulic says. “The lighter the umbrella, the more holes it has in it,” he explains. “Not everybody will have the same capacity to protect themselves,” which is why bolstering our natural defenses is so important. Even for those who do tan easily, this natural shield is far from foolproof and can’t replace the protection sunscreen provides. Consider this: That base tan you rely on to prevent burning is at best the equivalent of putting on SPF 3 sunscreen, according to the CDC. Most derms recommend that you wear at least SPF 30 to protect yourself from sun damage. That includes both DNA mutations that could lead to skin cancer, and the weakening of connective fibers, which leads to wrinkles, sagging, and sunspots. (It’s also important to remember that dark skinned people, though naturally endowed with lots of melanin whether they’re in the sun or not, are still susceptible to skin cancer and other forms of sun damage.)
We could all use a little more vitamin D, but make sure when you’re getting sunshine, you’re doing it safely. You should be slathering on (and reapplying!) SPF 30, wearing a hat, and hanging out in the shade when you can. A dark tan may seem sexy now, but the damage it does definitely won’t in 15 years.