Random Thoughts – Randocity!

WHO ups ante: Sunbeds now classified as bad as ‘tobacco’ for cancer risk.

Posted in tanning by commorancy on July 29, 2009

A new study conducted with mice that the WHO has latched onto and  that I’ve yet to read, now classifies sunbeds specifically and all UV exposure at the highest risk of causing skin cancer (on par with Tobacco).  I’m not sure what prompted this change in view, other than a single study, but they have made this change.  Clearly, one study is not enough to make this determination, but that is exactly what the World Health Organization is doing.  There must be some subtext here that’s prompting this change.  Perhaps the sunscreen industry is losing more money to people choosing to tan rather than buy and slather on the sunscreen.

The WHO claims that “It has been estimated that a sunbed tan offers the same protective effect as using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of only 2-3.”  I’d guess that most lighter skinned people can only produce a tan (in a sunbed or outdoors) that protects you 2-3 times the amount you normally could stay outside.  Without a tan, if you can stay out 1 hour without burning/tanning, then with a tan you can stay outside 2-3 hours without burning or substantially tanning.  That’s fairly significant.  The WHO shrugs it off as miniscule.  Compared to SPF 50,  it is miniscule.  But realize, that even at 15 minutes max time outdoors without sunscreen, there aren’t 12.5 hours of sunlight in a day when using SPF 50. So, SPF 50 is overkill for most people.  I’d also venture to guess that the WHO’s SPF 2-3 tan protection estimation is on the low side.  Yes, if you only tan once a week in a bed and get only a very light tan, that might only make an SPF of 2-3.  But, if you get a darker tan, then it will be a lot more protective perhaps up to 4-6 depending on color.  Of course, how much melanin you can produce will also dictate how strong your protection is.  Note that all skin colors will eventually burn, even the darkest tones.  The question is, how long does it take?

The WHO’s SPF arguments completely discount the fact that a tan is full spectrum UV protection and, instead, suggests reliance on the sunscreens to protect you.  What is this nonsense?  Sunscreens are nowhere near full spectrum protection.  In fact, most suncreens only really protect you from UVB and many provide limited or non-existent protection to UVA.  Many UVA blocking chemicals wear off or degrade far faster than UVB protection.  So, even while you may not burn with the UVB protection, your UVA protection may have worn off 10 minutes ago.  A tan is visible, you can see it.  Sunscreen is invisible, you can’t see it.  A tan that you can see, you know is working.  A sunscreen that you can’t see, you can’t know that it’s working.  So, you have to reapply at least every 30 minutes to 1 hours to ensure constant protection.

For SPF, consider this.  There are 8-10 major sunlit hours in the day.  If you have an SPF of 3 and can stay out 1 hour without burning, that means you can stay out 3 hours without burning with SPF 3 protection.   How often do people stay outdoors longer than 3 hours in direct sunlight?  Of the places that come to mind, I see an amusement park, a waterpark or perhaps at the beach surfing.  These three  situations can easily kill more than 4 hours outdoors.  So, in these instances, you wouldn’t want to rely on a tan alone to protect you even if you had an extremely dark tan.  But, of the three, two are water activities where sunscreens don’t really work well.  So, with outdoor water activities, having a tan is far more helpful than using sunscreens that continually wash off.

Benefits outweigh Risks

William B. Grant (Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC), San Francisco, CA, USA) suggests in his December 2008 article that the benefits of UV exposure outweigh any risks that UV might impose.  For example, he states,

“Humanity’s relation to solar UVB and vitamin D should first be put into the biological perspective. Solar UVB has always been the primary source of vitamin D for life on Earth. On the other hand, UV can damage DNA and generate free radicals, as well as destroy folate in the skin. As a result, skin pigmentation adapted to prevailing solar UV doses where people lived for many generations: very dark in equatorial plains regions, brown in tropical forests and subtropical locations, and very light in high-latitude European locations (Jablonski and Chaplin, 2000). Many people now may live where their skin is too light for prevailing UV doses, resulting in increased risk of skin cancer, or too dark, leading to vitamin D deficiencies.”

Assuming that UV and skin cancer are linked conclusively, his argument suggests another reason for higher incidence of skin cancer.  Because the world is literally an open travel destination, peoples from all over the world are now moving to regions they would not normally inhabit.  Thus, lighter skinned people are moving to regions with more UV exposure than normal for their protection level. Darker skinned people are becoming vitamin D deficient because UV isn’t strong enough when they move to less sunny areas.

Of UV exposure, Mr. Grant also writes,

“The benefits of UVB irradiance and vitamin D extend well beyond cancer. There is mounting evidence that vitamin D also reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases (Dobnig et al., 2008). The benefits for UVB irradiance accrue even in youth, as reported for bone development (Lamberg-Allardt and Viljakainen, 2008), multiple sclerosis (Grant, 2008van der Mei et al., 2003), breast cancer (John et al., 2007b), and prostate cancer (John et al., 2007a). One reason for an early-life benefit is that vitamin D increases absorption of calcium, which reduces the risk of cancer (Lappe et al., 2007Peterlik and Cross, 2005).”

On the one hand, you have the WHO claiming ‘tanning beds’ are the highest risk for cancer (especially for those under 30) and on the other you have the benefits of vitamin D (especially during early years) that help reduce your chances of cancer and aid in health.  These statements are very opposing.  In fact, evidence suggests that UV exposure also aids in the reduction of other illnesses.   Of the benefits of Vitamin D, Mr Grant again states,

“Also, vitamin D strengthens the innate immune system against both bacterial and viral infections through the production of human cathelicidin, LL-37 (Aloia and Li-Ng, 2007Hewison, 2008), thereby reducing the risk of viral infections such as Epstein–Barr virus that lead to other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and several types of cancer (Grant, 2008).”

And he states that 1000-2000 IU of Vitamin D per day can aid in the reduction of  other diseases and of contracting viruses including “… seasonal influenza and the common cold (Aloia and Li-Ng, 2007).”  I can attest to that.  UV exposure has kept me from getting the flu or a cold for the last two years running.


Humans have enjoyed sunlight since the beginning.  To now claim that natural sunlight is more dangerous than a chemical bath in sunscreen products is basically ridiculous.  Let’s actually do some studies to determine if sunscreen chemicals are truly long-term safe, shall we?  I digress.  If sunlight were truly as carcinogenic as the WHO puts forth in their very alarmist announcement, then humans would not exist today and we would have been one big heap of skin cancer.  Yet, that hasn’t happened.  So, then the question becomes, what has changed?  What are we now doing that we weren’t doing years ago?  I think the answer is in the all of the manmade products and foods that we consume.  The unnaturalness of working in closed indoor spaces instead of being outdoors.   Of course, this includes Mr. Grant’s argument of inhabiting regions with higher doses of UV.  So, when we do go outdoors to play, we get badly burned and we effectively have no protection.

Other sources of UV

There are other incidental sources of UV that you may also not be aware.  If you work in an office building or perhaps even in your home, fluorescent bulbs have become extremely common place.  While the UV that emanates from these bulbs is not as strong as those in tanning beds, they still give off UV.  Haven’t you ever wondered why plants love to be under fluorescent lights?  That’s the answer.. UV.  So, while there isn’t enough UV exposure from these fluorescents to actually tan you, there is enough exposure throughout an 8 hour day to account for higher incidence of skin cancer in individuals.  These fluorescent lamps may even be in your home in the new ‘energy saver’ bulbs.  So, you may also be further exposing yourself to additional UV without even knowing it.

WHO warns only targeted UV sources

If the WHO wants to exclaim warnings, they need to exclaim them in the proper places.  Right now, they are unfairly targeting tanning beds and tanning salons when natural sunlight falls directly under their warning.  They make no mention of UV from office building flourescent bulbs.  Awardspace.com describes standard fluorescent lamps:

“Fluorescent lamps illuminate 71% of the commercial space in the United States. Most fluorescent lighting gives off UV radiation. Inside the tube, fluorescent lights are pure ultraviolet (UV). Passing through the coating of the tube, they change to  visible light (spikes of violet, green and blue) and are not “supposed” to give off UV radiation, but some leaks out.  There are special filters that can be purchased to block UV light, but most businesses don’t install the filters because of cost.  The filter is a panel that allows light through, but blocks the UV radiation. [Sewell]”

Note that UV exposure is cumulative.  So, sitting under fluorescent lights every day for 8-10 hours is probably equivalent to being out in the sun for several hours.  Note that what’s blocked appears to be mainly UVB or else everyone would go home sunburned every day.  So, what’s left that comes out of the bulbs is likely the longer UVA waves.  These are the UV sources that account for skin aging and sun damage and potentially skin cancer.

William B. Grant quotes from the WHO’s very own web site:

“Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure is a minor contributor to the world’s disease burden, causing an estimated annual loss of 1.6 million (disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs)); i.e. 0.1% of the total global disease burden. A markedly larger annual disease burden, 3.3 billion DALYs, might result from reduction in global UVR exposure to very low levels.” –WHO Review via William B. Grant

Let”s read that again… diseases from UVR exposure (i.e., skin cancer) account for 0.1% of the total global disease burden! Yet, from the WHO’s announcement, they would have you think that it’s nearly all of the world’s disease burden.  The bottom line is, even if the WHO could manage to get every tanning salon in the world closed, the incidence of skin cancer would not likely drop as dramatically as they would think.  First, sunlight is still readily available.  Second, there are plenty of other unexpected UV sources (like office lighting) that go unchecked.  But, even the WHO cautioned that reducing UVR exposure to very low levels might result in a ‘markedly larger annual disease burden’ (due to the lack of vitamin D).  So, the timing of this increase in the risk levels is odd and must have some other subtext that’s pushing it through.  One thing is quite clear, this warning clearly targets tanning beds and tanning salons.  Because this notice clearly intends to target tanning salons and tanning beds, the question then remains as to the motivation behind this announcement at this time.

Spray tans and Self-Tanners

Posted in self-tanner, tanning by commorancy on July 29, 2009

As a follow up to Sunscreens vs Natural Tanning, I thought I would discuss spray tans and self-tanners. Because suntanning is now almost considered taboo (thanks to the sunscreen and medical industries), many people opt to use a Mystic, Magic or Mist-On spray tanning booth to get that golden glow.  A lot of people, for whatever reason, feel these are safer alternatives to sunlight produced color (melanin).  Here’s some information that you may not know about these spray tan and self-tanners.

Spray Tan Booths

How safe are spray tans?  Well, let’s start with what’s in these spray tanning formulations.  Obviously, there’s water in the solution.  The active ingredient (that tans you) is Dihydroxyacetone (known as DHA) and possibly even Erythrulose.  Both of these ingredients provide color, but in different ways.  Both Erythrulose and DHA are the ingredients in most off-the-shelf self-tanning products that you can find in the drug store.  I say ‘most’ because there are other alternatives that can provide skin color without self-tanners (although, these are simply dyes, colorants, coatings or powders).  Inactive ingredients include temporary bronzer colors (to give immediate color gratification) and possibly other chemicals to aid in delivery.  There are some spray tan booths that provide clear solutions instead of bronzed solutions (which can mark up clothing). The benefit to the spray tan is that they tend to spray on very evenly and help prevent blotchy, streaky and uneven application.  The drawback to spray tanning is that it aerosolizes the DHA and other ingredients so that you inhale it. Most spray tanning booths offer no ventilation systems during the spray tanning process.  In fact, they don’t want the ventilation because the floating particles may help you tan better.  But, because the solution is aerosolized, you are now inhaling these ingredients.  Yes, you wanted your skin surfaced tan, but did you realized that you are now tanning your lungs and nasal passages?  This is not a good thing.

DHA, Erythrulose and the dyes and colorants are not intended to be inhaled in mist particles.  So, while the spray booths are great for even application, they don’t really offer the necessary ventilation to prevent inhalation of these potentially problematic chemicals. Salons are supposed to provide nose plugs that may help filter out these chemicals.  Too many times, however, salons are out of the plugs and you end up inhaling anyway.  In fact, because of the time it takes to spray tan, you really can’t easily hold your breath.  So, you will eventually breathe in the chemicals.

Note that salons that have spray tan booths may opt to purchase third party DHA solutions.  These are solutions not made by the original manufacturer.   As a result, some people have experienced orange or yellow tones from spray tans in salons.  If you spray tan and your color is highly orange, it’s possible that your salon has opted to buy cheaper refills with cheaper ingredients.

Self-tanners: How they work

The two self-tanners listed above include Erythrulose and Dihydroxyacetone (DHA).  Erythrulose takes up to 5 days to fully appear.  Erythrulose provides a yellowish color to the skin.  The Erythrulose color is used to offset the oranges that DHA provides.  DHA begins developing in 4-6 hours reaching maximum color by 12-15 hours.   DHA’s color actually looks reasonably natural between 4-6 hours after application.  Once DHA begins to darken, however, it begins to show the familiar orange and unnatural look by the 12 hour mark.

Airbrush Tan

For the same reason as a booth is a problem, so is an airbrush.  The airbrush provides finer control and finer particles, but that doesn’t equate to safer inhalation risks unless they provide an active vent hood which can reduce inhalation risk.   Airbrush tans, though, do provide better and more even coverage than a spray tan booth.

Safest Way to Apply Self-tanners

The lotion versions are, in fact, the safest way to apply a self tanner.  While an aerosol makes it even and fast, it also makes it more dangerous for inhalation problems.  So, opting for a lotion prevents the inhalation issues.  The difficulty with lotions is uneven application and the possibility of an orange color.

Why do self-tanners turn orange?

Part of the reason for this is color theory.  If you have a bluish undertone to your skin or are very pale, that mixes with the developing color to produce an orange-ish tone.  If you have a tanned tone, the self-tanner enhances the tan and produces a much more natural color and deepens the tan.  Another reason that DHA turns orange is because of the base ingredients with which it’s mixed.  The lotion base that most brands use are cheap.  As a result, the lotion ingredients change the color of the developing DHA to become more orange.  To avoid this, you want to find a high quality lotion base or alternatively find a self-tanner mixed in a gel base.  Some lotions that work well and keep their proper color are Dave’s Famous Moisture Tan and L’Oreal’s Sublime Bronze Gelee.  Dave’s lotion is made in a white base and has a very light nutty scent. L’Oreal’s product has the typical nasty self-tanner scent, but it spreads on incredibly even (not streaky) and gives very good color.

What skin tones can use self-tanners?

While I know that dermatologists recommend self-tanners, you don’t want people to know you fake bake simply by looking.  So, you need to assess your present skin tone to determine if a self-tanner is right for you.  Certain skin tones do not do well with self-tanners.   For example, the white-bluish skin tones do not fake bake well.   The self-tan will likely make you orange or yellow very fast.  The best you can hope for is getting a very light self-tanner, applying it and then washing it off right as the color develops.  Washing immediately as the color develops lets you stop the color development at a point before it gets too dark. You will also need to find a self-tanner that gets you to the proper color.  Some ‘light’ self-tanners still get way too dark, so you should be cautious.  If at the 12 hour mark you are getting too dark, take a shower and lightly soap and rinse to stop further development.

Why do self-tanners smell?

The developing process between the DHA and the skin’s protein gives off an aroma as a result of the developing process.  The smell has been described as ‘wet dog’, ‘musty’, or ‘earthy’ .  The smell comes to its height at about the 12 hour mark after application.   It begins to subside after the 24 hour mark (when the color begins to wear off).  Because of the smell, this is a very telltale way of knowing when someone has used a self-tanner.  Frankly, I find the smell offensive and refuse to use self-tanners for this reason alone.

Note that Dave’s self-tanner  is made with limited fragrance, so it pretty much smells like the lotion mixed with DHA (it has kind of a nutty scent).  The good thing about this is that there is no fragrance to mix with the developing odor to make an even nastier smell.  Too many self-tanners on the market include entirely horrible fragrances to mask the DHA smell.  So, when the color (and odor) develops and mixes with the fragrance, it can sometimes be a nauseating combination. You want to shower just to get the smell off.  With Dave’s lotion, the light nutty fragrance dissipates rapidly so there is no fragrance left when the DHA color and odor develops… and that’s a blessing in disguise.

Self-tanners make my skin rough and dry

Yes, they do.  The best way to resolve this issue is to use a moisturizer frequently.  If you must use DHA to color your skin, your skin texture will change as a result.  You may find that you don’t like the texture that a self-tanner leaves on your skin.  If that’s the case, you may have to abandon use of DHA.

Flaking, peeling and splotchy uneven wear

Self-tanners don’t wear off evenly.  It can wear off to make your skin look splotchy or odd colored.  This is a lot more apparent when you try to go too dark and your skin is very light.   The good thing, though, is a fake bake usually wears off completely by 7-10 days.  That means, if there was a problem during application, it’s gone pretty fast.  The downside, of course, means that you have to reapply the color every 7-10 days to keep your skin tone.  The problem with reapplication is that you need to completely scrub the color off before adding more.  Otherwise, the new color won’t adhere to your skin well enough.  To make your self-tan last as long as possible, here are some tips.

  1. Scrub your skin with a exfoliating buff pad thoroughly prior to application (to remove as much dead dry skin as possible).
  2. Let your skin dry completely before application
  3. Apply a small amount of moisturizing (non-tanning) lotion to the backs of your hands, knuckles,  knees, elbows and ankles to prevent full strength DHA absorption
  4. Once the color appears, apply lotion daily to keep the tan as long as possible
  5. Remove the tan fully with a buff-pad once the tan begins to noticeably flake

Always fully remove any previous self-tan before applying a new tan.  If you don’t do this, your tan will become uneven and may go on too dark.  So, remove the old tan first.

Removing the old self-tan

To remove a self-tan, the best way is to wait until most of it has worn off. Then, use a body exfoliating buff pad to rub the rest off.  The benefit if using a buff pad is that it will get all of the old color off and, at the same time, prep your skin for a new tan.  You should always prepare your skin by exfoliation prior to using a self-tanner.  Otherwise, it may wear unevenly and/or turn way too dark in places.

Tips for working with self-tanners

Self-tanners will tan any skin surface or hair.  So, be careful with it around the plams of your hands and your nails.  Always wear gloves when applying and use a sponge applicator if possible.  For ease of application, buy a lotion with a dark guide.  The guide will aid getting it on evenly.  Gels with oil are reasonably easy to get applied evenly because you can see where the oil is.  The problem with the gel type with oil is that the oil dries slowly.  Lotions dry much faster.  Guides can stain clothing, so be careful.   Do not swim, shower or sweat within 4-7 hours of application.  This can wash off parts of the DHA and cause splotchy or uneven color.  Wait until the color develops before doing swimming or other activities that make you sweat.

If you choose to go the route of a drug store lotion, look for reviews on the Internet first.  People who like a product will usually recommend it.  Amazon is a good place to get reasonably honest reviews of products. To get self-tanner off your palms, fingernails or cuticles, use a cotton swab and some bleach.  The bleach will lighten the self-tanner and make it far less noticeable.


Finally, expect to spend between 1-3 hours prepping, applying and waiting to dry.  Then, 4-6 hours before color begins to develop.   So, this is not a fast process by any stretch.  Be sure to fully exfoliate before you apply a self-tanner (whether from a bottle or in a salon).   You should moisturize daily to keep the skin moist and preserve the look of the tan.  There’s little you can do to mask the developer odor, so just try to keep yourself from getting wet (when it smells the worst).

Finally, I would like to point out the following possible health issues with self-tanner chemicals:

  1. A DHA tan does not protect you from UV.  Do not use it thinking that you won’t get burned outdoors.  In fact, DHA offers no UV protection at all.  So, if you must be outdoors with your DHA tan, apply sunscreen to fully protect your skin from a burn.
  2. DHA has no long term toxicity studies for its use on the skin.  It is a possibility that DHA leeches into the bloodstream on application.  So, applying DHA may not be healthy to your skin or body… which may take years before it’s ultimately linked to any injury.
  3. Aerosolized DHA in spray tanning booths will be inhaled.  You should be cautious of inhaling aerosolized DHA when using a spray tanning system.  Inhaling DHA into the lungs has not been tested for possible health issues.

Sunscreens vs Natural Tanning

Posted in fun in the sun, health and beauty, tanning by commorancy on May 25, 2009

Every year at this time, the zealots come out of the woodwork promoting sunscreens. After all, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.  The truth is, no one has any idea of long term toxicity risks with regards to the use of sunscreen chemicals. Worse, people slather them all over their bodies without thought to the fact that your skin is the largest organ on your body. Is it worth the long term exposure and unknown health risks with the use of Parsol 1789, Mexoryl or Methoxcinnimate (or any other chemicals)? Unless you have a form of albinism or vitaligo, you should attempt to utilize the skin’s natural tanning properties over the use of chemicals in sunscreens. The natural sunscreen that appears in the skin is melanin. Melanin is much more broad spectrum than any lab created chemical at blocking the various wavelengths of UV (other than UVC, which doesn’t reach Earth).


Sunscreens protect you mainly from UVB (think of the B to mean ‘Burn’).  These rays are shorter wavelengths and only penetrate shallow skin surface layers.  These are the layers that lead to burning.  UVA is a much longer wavelength and is associated with deeper skin level exposure (and is thought to aid in premature aging).  Sunscreens have limited ability to protect you from UVA.  Note that the Sun’s natural mix of UVA and UVB (that reaches the earth) is up to 5% UVB and 95% UVA.  However, during some times of the year, the UVB can slightly higher than 5% (where the UV index is at its highest).  These are the times where burning is very easy.

Bad Burns

The use of sunscreen chemicals can promote a bad burn. The reasoning is very clear. When you use these chemicals to block the sun, these chemicals prevent tanning. So, the one time you forget the sunscreen, improperly apply it or forget to reapply it, you will likely get a very bad burn. Even though many dermatologists recommend and endorse the use of sunscreens, utilizing the skin’s own tanning properties helps prevent a bad burn. Melanin works 24/7 and doesn’t need reapplication every hour or two. Although, a natural tan does wear off over several weeks if you don’t keep the tan going.  On the other hand, sunscreens require frequent reapplication (probably every hour, especially if you’re in water or are sweating).  The UVA chemicals actually break down rapidly (as quickly as 30 minutes depending on brand, quality and body chemistry) once applied, so you need to reapply a lot more often than you think to maintain UVA protection. The UVB chemicals also break down, but much more slowly. Having active UVB protection without UVA isn’t that helpful, though. So, you need to reapply.

The point, however, is that you want to avoid a bad burn at all costs.  You want to tan and not burn.  Thus, the use of sunscreens does not promote natural tanning and promotes forgetting to reapply which can then lead to accidental burns after the chemicals have stopped working.  Remember that sunscreens give no warning when they have worn off. Worse, you won’t know your skin is burned until 3-6 hours after sun exposure.

Vacation and Tanning

If you will be traveling to a sunny destination, it is better to build up a natural base tan than constantly applying sunscreen every hour. You can build your tan slowly and steadily outdoors or you can do it in a tanning bed. Nothing ruins a vacation more than a bad burn, however. Having a base tan allows you to be outdoors without worrying about getting a bad burn. Yes, you can still get burned even with a tan, so you should always be cautious.  But, having a base tan reduces your chance of a bad burn substantially over forgetting to apply sunscreen.

Beginning your Tan

To obtain a base tan, start the tanning process at least 6 weeks out from when you leave to go on vacation.  You can do this outdoors or in a tanning bed.  Note, however, that tanning beds are concentrated, but also timed.  So, for example, 12 minutes in a high pressure bed is equivalent to about 2 hours outdoors.  So, if you can only do about 15 minutes outdoors in midday sun, then you should start at about 6 minutes in a 12 minute bed.  You would think to start at about 2-3 minutes, but 6 minutes isn’t enough to burn you in a bed in one session.  Needless to say, always discuss tanning bed times with your salon professional.

Another note about tanning in a tanning bed.  DO NOT USE SPF SUNSCREEN WHEN TANNING IN A TANNING BED! This is emphasized because it wastes your money.  Yes, you can use low SPF to aid tanning outdoors only, but never use SPF in a bed.  Even though a tanning bed mimics the UV from the sun, it isn’t the sun.   It is also time controlled.. and this is very important to understand.  Time controlled means that you do not need to worry about accidentally getting too much exposure.  The maximum you can get in one session is equivalent to 2 hours outdoors at maximum bed time.  Because the time is controlled and there’s little risk of a burn, there is no need for sunscreen.  Further, using a sunscreen in a bed is a waste of money.  If you spend $10-$40 per session, using SPF sunscreen completely prevents the rays from tanning you.  So, you will have spent your money for nothing, literally. When using tanning beds, you are paying for access to the UV. SPF lotions prevent that UV from tanning you. Don’t do this unless you really like throwing your money away.

Reading your Skin

Understand that a burn is red and melanin is also red (initially.. and oxidises to brown).  So, which is a burn and which is melanin?  If there’s heat, redness and/or discomfort (followed by peeling), then it’s a burn.  If you see redness only without any heat or discomfort, then that’s melanin.  Controlled tanning will allow you to build up a base tan without peeling.  If you peel, then you’ve 1) burned your skin and 2) lost your tanning efforts.  You want to gain color slowly to prevent burning and peeling.


When tanning in a tanning bed or outdoors, using a high quality tanning lotion is important.  A lotion hydrates your skin before, during and after UV exposure.  So, always use a lotion as sun exposure is very dehydrating.  Tanning bed lotions can be used outdoors.  However, most outdoor lotions cannot be used in a tanning bed (it can cause reactions with the acrylic surfaces).  So, if you want to combine bed tanning and outdoor tanning, buy a lotion that works in a bed and also use it outdoors.  Again, make sure the lotion does not have any sunscreen at all.  You can buy a sunscreen lotion if you really need it for outdoor use.

There are various lotions on the market from various vendors.  The one thing I will caution you about is that some tanning bed lotions can be very expensive and, yet, completely ineffective.  You want to find a lotion that works for you and that provides results.  However, don’t be fooled by ‘Triple Bronzing Formulas’ or ‘Quadruple Bronzing Formulas’.  These are buzzwords that mean they have added either 1) color or 2) self-tanners (yes, like the ones you can get at the drug store).  If you want to see how you are progressing naturally, make sure to NOT buy any lotion with a self-tanner.  This may mean you have to buy the lotion from the Internet (which are cheaper this way anyway) than buying it from the salon.

You will need to read the label for self-tanners.  The two common self-tanners are dihydroxyacetone and erythrulose.  So, if you find these ingredients in the lotion, put it back on the shelf and find something else.  You may find that your salon does not carry any lotions without self-tanners.  The reason that salons carry ‘Bronzing formulas’ is that these lotions give immediate color (or, at least, within 4 hours).  This immediate gratification supposedly brings back the customers.  However, don’t be fooled.  You want a real base tan, not a self-tanner tan.  So, skip self-tanner bronzer lotions and find a lotion without self-tanners.

Here are a couple of manufacturers that make lotions without self-tanners:  Designer Skin (Intrigue and a select others) and Hoss Sauce (Dark, Super Dark and Ultra Dark).  I personally have found Hoss Sauce to be more effective than Designer Skin, but your mileage may vary.  There are some lotions that also offer tingle, hot or cold sensations when you are tanning.  Avoid these until you have a base tan.  Otherwise, these may interfere your tanning or increase your chances of a burn.

Note: Self-tanner color offers no protection from UVA or UVB.  Don’t be fooled by the color from a self-tanner.  It offers no protection from the sun and, again, can encourage a bad burn.  When trying to obtain a base tan, always use a lotion without self-tanners!

Tanning Beds

When tanning at a salon, you will find many different tanning beds.  The least expensive beds (sometimes $6-8 a session) are the least effective beds at tanning.  They should have a ratio of 5% UVB to 95% UVA (just like the sun).  However, you may find these beds aren’t that effective.  There can be many reasons for this.  Cleanliness in a salon is very important.  Bulb age is also important.  Many tanning salons have these beds booked every open hour of the salon.  These bulbs, then, get a lot of use.  Many salon owners try to cut costs by not replacing the bulbs as often as they should.  If you find that you get nothing out of a bed, the two main reasons are that 1) the acrylic is dirty and 2) the bulbs are old.  When I say the acrylic is dirty, I’m not talking about the part where you lay.  I’m talking about the underside of it.  These acrylic surfaces must be removed about once a week and thoroughly cleaned on both sides.  The bulbs themselves should also be wiped down to prevent any buildup on the bulb.  Doing this frequently increases the tanning capability of the bed to what it should be.

Many salons pride themselves on thoroughly cleaning the bed surface, but how often do they remove the acrylics and clean the underside?  Not often in many cases.  Yes, even the ‘expensive salons’ as well.  So, you should ask the salesperson how often the underside gets cleaned.

As far as tanning capacity, on the high end beds (high pressure beds), it is not uncommon to find up to 18000-20000 watts in the bed.  The low end beds might provide around 9000-11000 watts.  The difference in wattage (and UV output) is substantial.  The high pressure beds, then, will probably run between 8-12 minutes for the maximum time of that bed per session.  Low pressure beds might run between 20-30 minutes.  So, if time is important to you, the higher pressure beds get you in and out faster.

Note, never tan in a bed and then immediately lay out or stay outside for extended time without sunscreen. You are asking for a bad burn.  Do not do this.  If you tan in a bed and then end up outdoors in the sun the same day, wear some sunscreen outdoors.  Or, better, don’t tan in a bed on the day you plan on being outdoors.

Tricks for tanning in a bed

When trying to get your base tan in a tanning bed, you will need to move around in the bed.  Don’t lay absolutely still.  For example, lay on your back for a bit, then lay on one side, then the other, raise your arms, etc.  Doing this will give you a much more even tan than lying perfectly still.  If you stay still, you will get telltale bed marks on certain places like your shoulder blades and between your buttocks (where the acrylic touches).  Moving around prevents these marks.  You might even turn over and lay on your stomach for a while (even in a bed where you don’t need to turn).  You can also use a standup tanning booth to avoid these issues.

How long does it take?

This question can really only be answered by the salon operator after they have assessed your skin type.  Once they determine your skin type, they can tell you what you need to do in order to progress.  However, you need to read your skin after you have tanned at a salon to know if you are going too fast.  If, after a session, you have no color or redness by the next day, then you may be progressing too slowly.  However, if you are red, hot and having discomfort, you are moving too fast (burned).  If you do get a burn from a bed or outdoors, do not tan until the burn has gone away (takes several days).

For the lightest skins, it may take between 6-9 weeks to build a minimal base tan.  For medium skin tones, you can probably see a base tan in 3-6 weeks.  For dark tones, you probably already have a base tan, but if you are a lighter skinned, it may take 2-3 weeks in a bed.  As a side note, dark tones can still get darker.  Melanin works the same way in all people who can produce melanin.

Again, these are only estimates.  You should always discuss your skin type with the salon owner to set up a proper regimen that works for you.

Melanin Colors

This portion is to set expectations on how your skin may look tanned.  Note, there are two different types or melanin (pigment): 1) pheomelanin (reds and yellows) and 2) eumelanin (dark browns).  The darkness of color depends on which types of melanin your body produces and the concentration of each type. Lighter skinned people tend to produce more pheomelanin (reds and yellows) and less eumelanin (dark shades).  This mix gives the redish and yellowish copper or ‘golden’ colors. Darker skinned and olive toned people tend to produce much more eumelanin and with less  pheomelanin.  This color becomes much darker brown to black.   Darkest toned people tend to produce nearly all eumelanin and in high concentrations. So, depending on your body’s type of melanocytes, your body may produce a range between both of these types of melanin.  You’ll just need assess your tone after you’ve tanned.  This also means that, depending on your skin type and melanin mix, you may not be able to turn very dark brown (if that’s what you are wanting).   Or, alternatively, you may find that you get darker much faster than you thought.

You can gauge your skin’s tone by your hair color.  The darker your hair, the more eumelanin your skin is likely able to produce.  Melanin is also used to produce hair color.  So, red haired people will likely produce more pheomelanin.  You can see this color in the freckles of many red haired people.  Blonds are likely to produce much more pheomelanin than eumelanin (blond would be the yellow melanin).  Black haired people should be able to produce the darkest brown eumelanin tones.  Note that hair color should only be used as a guide as some dark haired people may only produce a lighter ‘golden’  tan.

Melanin of all types will eventually oxidise to a brown color from its initial color and deepen the color of the tan.  This oxidation will make the familiar brownish tones (yes, even the reds and yellows will oxidise).

Other Benefits

Getting UV exposure to your skin also helps maintain health with Vitamin D.  Sunscreens prevent the creation of Vitamin D as UV is blocked.  So, getting some UV exposure aids in stimulating the creation of beneficial vitamins.  So, before you immediately put on that sunscreen, leave it off for a small amount of time to get your vitamin D.  Put it on later to prevent the burning.

Suntans, Skin Types and Hormones

Some people feel that a suntan looks bad and prefer not to have a tan.  Again, that thinking promotes a bad burn when you do need to be outdoors.  Some people may think this way because they haven’t previously been able to tan.  Some skin types (type I) can’t readily tan.  For Type 1 and Type 2 skins, there is a product that may soon be on the market to help.  It is a peptide (melanocyte stimulating hormone) that stimulates the melanocytes to produce melanin in individuals who do not have this hormone or where the hormone is ineffective.  For many people, this simulated hormone works and allows people to tan in the sun or in a tanning bed when they previously couldn’t get a tan. Of course, this hormone only works if the melanocytes are functioning properly.  By having a base tan, this prevents burns and also helps reduce premature aging by blocking UVA.  Note, however, that you must get sun exposure to obtain a tan even with the use of this hormone.  It does not tan you without sun exposure.   So, the use of the hormone still requires UV exposure to obtain the initial tan.

Overall, sunscreens may not be long term healthy for your skin.   Getting a tan requires some sun damage to obtain the tan.  But, the melanin helps reduce the risk of burns and other related issues.  It’s up to you to choose what you want to do, but nothing in life is without risks.  Know that a tan is a natural skin process.  Placing chemicals on your skin is not natural.  Even though you cannot see or feel any damage by using sunscreen chemicals, that doesn’t mean no damage exists.  When you get a sunburn, you feel it and know the skin is damaged.  With sunscreen, there’s just no way to know if something you get later in life was related to earlier years of using large amounts of sunscreen.  It’s your choice, however.

Skin Cancer and Burning

Yes, I know, we’ve all heard the rhetoric:  Exposure to UV causes cancer.   I’ll leave this one for you to decide.  But, I will say is this.  Tanning beds produce UV.  The Sun produces UV.   UV is UV is UV.  It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the Sun or from a flourescent bulb in a tanning bed, it’s still UV.   But, as I stated above, the difference between a tanning bed and laying outdoors: one is controlled, one isn’t.  Again, it’s for you to decide which to choose.  But, because of varying conditions with laying outdoors, you could end up burned and not know it for several hours.  On the other hand, a salon will assess your skin and put you in a bed that’s timed based on your skin tone and type.  So, they are trying to keep you from getting burned in a Salon.  The Sun is not controlled or timed to shut off.  This means, if you lay out longer than you had wanted or get caught up in an activity, you can easily forget and burn yourself.  Burning is definitely damage to the skin and it is theorized that this damage leads to cancer… so you want to avoid a burn at all costs.

UPDATE: World Health Oganization (WHO) lists sunbeds (specifically) and all UV exposure as fully carcinogenic at all wavelengths (highest risk)

A new study conducted with mice, that I’ve yet to read, has classified sunbeds specifically and all UV exposure as the highest risk of causing skin cancer.  I’m not sure what prompted this change in view, other than a single study, but they have made this change.  Clearly, one study is not enough to make this determiniation, but that is exactly what the World Health Organization is doing.  There must be some subtext here that’s prompting this change.  Perhaps the sunscreen industry is losing more money to people choosing to tan rather than slather on the sunscreen.

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