Are tanning oils safer with SPF or are you just frying your skin?
With summer around the corner, many may be looking forward to sun-kissed skin. Many doctors would urge sunbathers to exercise caution when using tanning oils.
With summer around the corner, many may be looking forward to sun-kissed skin. Achieving that perfect tan has become a popular fad throughout the United States.
The practice of tanning is one of the many things commonly attributed to Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. A widely accepted tale states that Chanel was photographed in the French Riviera sporting a suntan in 1923, and from then on, bronzed skin became the desired look.
While not everyone desires the bronzed skin look, it has become a fad so popular that tanning oils are common on the market.
As new research continues to confirm the dangers of the sun and different awareness campaigns such as Melanoma Awareness Month in May, these tanning oils have started to add SPF, promoting user safety.
But does adding SPF to these tanning oils actually increase the safety of these oils? Many doctors would urge sunbathers to exercise caution.
Dr. John Whyte, WebMD's chief medical officer, answered some of our questions about these tanning oils in an email.
First of all, what are tanning oils and how do they differ than sunscreen?
Tanning oils are products designed to help people get a tan -- typically deeper and quicker than other products that are labeled as sunscreens.
"As you’d expect, they have a different consistency and texture than many of the sunscreen lotions and creams you are used to," Whyte said.
These oils usually have a low SPF, Sun Protection Factor, because they are labeled tanning. SPF basically measures protection against UVB rays.
The actual definition of SPF by law "is a measure of how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (i.e., in the presence of sunscreen) relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin."
As a result, when the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases, up to a point.
Tanning oils also work a little differently than sunscreens, as these oils actually attract and focus UV rays onto the skin. It accelerates the production of melanin, which gives your skin the darker hue, according to Whyte.
Does adding SPF to tanning oils make them "safer"?
"It is very important that if you choose tanning oil, you choose one with enough SPF, typically around 30 SPF," Whyte said.
Many tanning oils don’t contain enough SPF, as the goal of people who purchase them is to achieve a quick and deep tan.
"If you choose one labeled 'broad spectrum', it can protect against both types of UV rays. The goal of choosing oils with SPF is not to stay out in sun longer, but to provide more protection of the skin," Whyte said.
Is there any safe way to tan?
"Other than a fake tan, there is no such thing as a truly safe tan," Whyte said.
However, there are steps to minimize the risk of too much skin damage.
Make sure to use broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 and reapply every 2 hours, according to Whyte. You should take breaks and spend some time in the shade.
"Go inside at the first signs of skin redness, use umbrellas, sunglasses and hats," Whyte said.
It's important to check for signs of sun damage throughout the year.
"I always tell people to do skin checks at least a couple times a year to check for moles or rashes -- and you need to get someone to look at your back," Whyte advised.
Sunless, self-tanning products, which have improved considerably over the last few years, may be another route to obtaining that bronzed look.
"Self-tanners typically contain DHA, so check the ingredients," Whyte said. "When you apply DHA to your skin, it causes a reaction that makes the epidermis darken. Some people are allergic to DHA, so it's always important to test with a small amount."
How much sun exposure is considered “safe”?
"Some sun exposure is good for us, as it helps with our body’s production of vitamin D, which is involved in absorbing calcium," Whyte said. "Typically, we need about 20 minutes of sun exposure a day."
Too much sun exposure presents an array of risks and dangers, most notably sunburn and skin cancer.
"Many of us think a sunburn is just some momentary discomfort -- burning and pain," Whyte said. "But too much sun also causes dryness of our skin, which causes cracking, which could cause blisters and painful itching leading to infections."
It can also cause freckles, wrinkles and aging. Too much skin damage changes the texture of our skin, making it seem "leathery." However, skin cancer is the biggest concern.
There’s a common misconception that dark-skinned persons don’t tan and don’t get sunburns, and according to Whyte, this isn't true.
While people with darker skin have more natural protection than fair-skinned persons, no one has enough natural protection to prevent sun damage if you are exposed to UV rays long enough.
"Skin cancer still occurs in people of color, although it’s rare," Whyte said. "So don't get a false sense of security if your skin tone is darker than a friend's."
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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