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You might think tanning gives you a healthy glow, but the truth is that a tan is a sign that your skin cells have been hurt. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damage your skin, cause wrinkles and spots, and play a big role in causing skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the U.S. Young people definitely can get skin cancer, and years of exposure mean even more risk. And don’t think that if you’ve got dark skin, you can just soak up rays. People with darker skin may be better protected, but definitely can still get sun damage.

How can you be smart about the sun?

  • When possible, avoid outdoor activities during midday, when the sun's rays are strongest. That’s usually the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV ray protection to protect your eyes.
  • Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen and lipscreen with at least SPF 15. “Broad spectrum” means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Broader protection helps guard better against all kinds of skin concerns, from cancer to wrinkles.
  • Follow the directions on your sunscreen and check the expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date will last no more than three years. Sunscreen will not last as long if it is stored in very hot or very cold temperatures.
  • You need 1 ounce of sunscreen — about the size of a ping-pong ball — every time. Reapply after two hours and after swimming or sweating. That means a tube of 3 to 5 ounces might be enough for you for just one day at the beach. Rub sunscreen in well, and don’t forget spots you might miss, like your ears, under bathing suit straps, and the back of your neck.
  • Don’t think your skin worries end when the summer is over. You still need protection every day. You can just use a moisturizer that has SPF 15 or higher. And be extra careful on snow days since the snow reflects sun back up onto our faces.

You may have heard that the sun helps people get vitamin D, and that many people may not get enough vitamin D. Ask your doctor if you need to get more vitamin D from your diet or in the form of a supplement. Some people may also benefit from brief exposure to the sun. Keep important sun safety tips in mind, though. Ask your doctor how best to protect your skin and get enough of this important vitamin.

What about tanning indoors?

  • Trying to get that tan is dangerous both outside and inside. Indoor tanning salons use light bulbs in the “beds” that give off dangerous UV rays, the same rays found outside.
  • Spray tans you can get at a salon and tanning lotions or gels you can buy at a drugstore can be safe. While there is no known risk for skin cancer with these products, you do have to be careful. Spray tans, lotions, or gels use a color additive (what makes your skin look tan) called DHA that is approved — considered safe — for use on the outside of your body by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Make sure it doesn’t get into your eyes or mouth, though.


Content last reviewed October 13, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.