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Do Self Tanners Protect You from Getting Skin Cancer?

By HERWriter
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Self tanners made their debut in the 1959 with the introduction of an orangey after-shave product called “Man Tan”. In recent years, sunless tanning solutions have made tremendous progress so that users can achieve a more attractive and uniform tan. So much so, they have become commonly used as an alternative to actual sun tanning or use of tanning beds. Some people believe that self tanners can give you a sort of “base” that will protect you from the harmful effects of the sun. But do they?

Self-tanners neither protect nor cause skin cancer. It is a myth that you need a “base” tan before heading out in the sun. In actuality, you are just exposing yourself to more UV rays not creating a protective layer. According to beautybrains.com, a survey study conducted by Boston University School of Medicine found that one third of the people surveyed believed that self tanners protected them from the sun’s harmful rays.

Based on these results, the authors of the study are urging the Food and Drug Administration to require all self-tanning products be required to contain sun block in their formulation. Currently, these products must all have warnings that they do not contain sun block if it’s not added. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunless tanning solutions alone do contain a SPF of four but that is not high enough to give adequate protection.

Other sources say that applying self tanners is best done at night so the color develops while you sleep and sunscreen protection is not needed then. It is better to educate sunless tan users that they must apply sunscreen separately as well as reapply rather than give them a false sense of protection.

The Boston study queried other practices of the 440 individuals questioned who were between the ages of 18 to 30. In this group they found that sunless tan users were also more inclined to use tanning salons, they tended to experience more sunburns in the summer than non-users and they were less aware of the risks of skin cancer.

My previous article, “Motivating Young Women Not to Use Tanning Salons” at www.empowher.com/skin-cancer/content/motivating-young-women-not-use-tanning-beds talked about appealing towards women's sense of attractiveness rather than focusing on cancer warnings to get better compliance of UV light avoidance. Sunless tan users are supposed to moisturize and exfoliate any dry skin prior to using so that the tanning solution goes on more evenly. Perhaps, encouraging them continue to “moisturize” with sunscreen to protect their sunless tan look and reduce wrinkles would be an effective motivator to increase their protection.

It can be argued that self-tanners provide a secondary protection from cancer since with self tanners people do not feel the need to go outside and soak up extra rays. However, it must be remembered that most self tanning solutions do not provide any real blocking of the sun’s rays. Sunscreen must be worn and reapplied as directed to gain full protection.


Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles

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EmpowHER Guest

Great post! Will quote it (with credit) on my site about self tanner reviews!
Self Tanner Reviews

March 21, 2011 - 11:43pm

I agree with you about the hidden value of Vitamin D in many medical conditions. It even makes me wonder about past studies that have indicated certain causes of diseases where Vit D levels were never considered and measured. Maybe low levels were really the unknown influence.

For example, I am working on an article about low Vit D levels are thought to increase vaginal infections in women. In the past, no one would have ever even thought Vit D levels could be involved.

Hopefully, Vit D will turn out to be a new secret weapon in fighting these illnesses since it is so easy to supplement and measure blood levels. Everyone should have their Vit D levels checked when they have their next have blood drawn to find out their base level. It is surprising how low many people's are.

Thanks again for your comments!

May 28, 2010 - 10:38am
EmpowHER Guest

Good point Michelle!

I get annoyed that we rarely see balance. Either people are deathly afraid to get some UV light, or they are obsessed with the sun and over expose! Balance!!

I look forward one day to a sun awareness message instead of an dermatologist lead Sun scare message. Soon enough the cover up will be exposed!

Interesting articles written lately about the effect the sun scare message has had on Health Care in both Canada and the US. Low Vitamin D blood levels from not enough UV light and poor diets have lead to massive increases in several cancers such as breast, colon and prostate. These cancers come with a much greater risk when compared to the mortality rate of melanoma. The claim that excessive exposure to UV light whether by sun bed or natural sun increases melanoma risk by 75% is terribly misleading. The real risk of dieing of melanoma is 1.7 out of 100 000 people in the US, and that includes the 75% increase! The anti sun message will kill 338 000 people in the US. that number is a calculation that includes the mortality rates for 105 different diseases directly linked to a low vitamin D blood level. Every single cell and tissue in our bodies has a Vitamin D receptor. That receptor sits and waits for vitamin D to regulate normal cell activity.

UV light and our bodies work together in a pretty incredible way.

May 28, 2010 - 10:02am

You hit the problem directly, "People need to be logical". They aren't. People eat diets that are horrible, they don't exercise even though they know they should, the drink alcohol to reduce stress, smoke cigarettes...the list is endless. We have rampant heart disease, diabetes and organ cancer in this country due to these practices.

No one says we don't need sun exposure but we dont' stop at 20 minutes. People want to look tan and many lead such busy lives that thinking about how many minutes they are in the sun isn't high on their list. We know people are not diligent in reapplying their sun screen they are really are getting their daily dose of sunshine except in winter.

So, if people could motivate themselves to improve in these other health related areas then paying attention to their sun exposure would fit right in. It is simply safer to encourage people to wear sunscreen to reduce their risk knowing they will often forget.

May 28, 2010 - 9:42am
EmpowHER Guest

the tan is a sign of skin damage argument is pretty silly and the AAD can say it all they want and it makes very little sense. We evolved being exposed to UV light and without it we couldn't survive. Human evolution shows clearly that skin tone and melanin production help us to avoid sun burn.

The issue is skin type. If you are fair skinned with red hair, you need to be careful and should wear ORGANIC sunscreen when spending more than 15-20 minutes outdoors. Folks with darker skin types should receive 20-30 minutes a day of unprotected exposure before they cover up.

People need to be logical. if you take a second and look at all the chemicals we apply to our skin everyday you should hear some bells going off.. Things like oxybenzone, parabins in products like perfume, body wash, sunless moisturizers, anti-antiperspirants.. all products that we use without question. It seems odd that we are encouraged to blame UV light for skin cancer and not the companies that produce these products. These companies are the ones funding anti UV light research. Fear = Consumption. its just to bad most people fall for it.. including the MD community. Do you really think mother nature got it wrong? does it make sense to you that every other living thing on the planet needs UV light to survive and apparently we dont?? We threw the monkey wrench into the plan when we started to settle in places that are frozen for half the year.
bottom line we need 15-30 minutes per day of UV exposure every single day of the year!

research MD's like

DR. Holick
DR. Sorenson
DR. Zoltan Rona
DR. Reinhold veith
DR. Bill Grant

these are just a few MD's encouraging people in North America to embrace sensible UV exposure for Optimal health.

May 28, 2010 - 9:01am

From the American Academy of Dermatology survey of people about sun exposure at http://www.aad.org/media/background/news/Releases/New_Survey_Exposes_the_Most_Common_Myths_About_Tan/

"Myth: Getting a base tan is a healthy way to protect skin from sun damage.
Only 48 percent of respondents knew this statement was false.
Fact: A tan is a sign of damage to the skin from UV radiation. Every time a person tans, the skin becomes damaged and this damage accumulates over time. This accumulated damage, in addition to accelerating the aging process, also increases a person’s risk for all types of skin cancer.

“A base does very little to protect your skin, and since tanning damages the skin, getting a base tan could do more harm than good.” said Dr. Draelos. “The only way to prevent sunburn is to protect your skin through using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and seeking shade.”

I did read at another site what you refer to about the SPF of 4, which is really no protection, plus you are exposing yourself to a lot of UV rays to get that. So getting a "base" tan is not reducing your risk of skin cancer.

In terms of "oxybenzone", I agree there is reason for concern about its presence in sunscreen and given the choice, finding one without it is probably better. However, not wearing sunscreen for fear of exposure is not a better choice. The link below from the Enviromental Working Group has a link to sunscreens they feel are safer others may want to check this out. Thank you for your comment and suggestion to search.

May 28, 2010 - 8:40am
EmpowHER Guest

A base tan provides you with a base tan of 2-4. your skin turning brown is your bodies biological defense against overexposure. The job of melanin is to absorb UV light and not allow them to damage your epidermis and dermis layers of the skin.

Likely not a great idea to get health advice Michele as I see many misleading statements. Self tanners and sunscreens are FULL of carcinogenic ingredients, for instance do yourself a favor and Google "oxybenzone" you will be surprised what you find and even more surprised thats its in almost every major sunscreen.

May 28, 2010 - 7:37am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.