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There’s No Safe Way to Tan

We spoke to four different dermatologists: Not one of them would tell us that sunbathing is okay

In the interest of looking beach-ready, you may well be thinking about embarking upon a regular plan of at least the G (gym) and T (tan) in GTL. But if you’re vaguely aware that the sun is bad for your bare skin and wondering, “How can I safely roast myself like a butter-rubbed Thanksgiving turkey this weekend?” we have some bad news: You can’t. Just as there’s no healthy way to smoke cigarettes, there’s absolutely no safe way to get a tan. And if you don’t believe us, ask a dermatologist. Better yet, ask four of them, which we went ahead and did for you.

“A tan is basically your skin trying to protect itself from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays,” says Anthony M. Rossi, a dermatologist in New York City. “These UV wavelengths cause DNA damage, so your cells produce pigment [i.e., they darken the color of the skin] to protect itself from further DNA damage.”

Robert T. Brodel, a dermatologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, agrees. “About 95 percent of dermatologists think about this the same way. We see patients that have yellowing of their skin, wrinkles, brown spots, pre-cancers and skin cancers every day, and the one modifiable cause of these things is the sun.”

But what if we tried to cheat nature and brown ourselves in a tanning bed?

“Tanning using a bed isn’t considered safe, ever,” says Adriana Schmidt, a dermatologist in Southern California. “Not only are you exposing yourself to UV radiation, but there may even be other forms of radiation you’re exposing yourself to as well.”

Um, can we get a fourth opinion?

“Please don’t use tanning beds,” says Lisa Chipps, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills. “There’s no ‘safe’ level of ultraviolet radiation.”

But what if you absolutely have to get a little color?

“For those who insist on darkening their skin, I advise them to use lotion or spray tans,” says Chipps. “However, with spray tans, be sure to cover your eyes, mouth and nose, to avoid inhaling or ingesting the DHA chemicals.” Rossi agrees: “I recommend using a self-tanner. But you still need to use sun block daily afterwards, because self-tanners don’t protect you against UV.”

But isn’t the sun our primary source of Vitamin D? So won’t terrible things happen to us if we don’t expose a little bit of skin?

“If you’re worried about Vitamin D, you can take it orally,” explains Brodell. “The second thing is that some sun gets through the sunscreen and through the clouds on a day that you didn’t wear a hat [which provides ample amounts of Vitamin D].”

What if we’re otherwise young and healthy? Won’t that protect us?

“No,” says Brodell. “What I find is that most of my patients aren’t scared of skin cancer because they don’t think they can get it. So I tell them that if they want to keep looking young, they need to protect themselves from the sun.”

So there you have it: If you want to go outside, wear sunscreen and a big floppy hat. Better yet, just spend the summer on your couch, under a blanket. After all, you can’t be too careful.