Men and women on the beach trying to get tanned skin.

Despite decades of warning about the hazards of sun exposure, it's evident that beaches, poolside patios—and even tanning salons—continue to be crowded with people seeking tanned skin. So it’s no surprise that skin cancer cases also continue to climb.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), rates of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) have doubled since 1982, and skin cancer is now the most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S.

“Too many people still think that getting a little extra color is okay, as long as they don’t burn,” says Jeanine Downie, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice in Montclair, N.J. “But anytime skin gets darker, it’s getting damaged.”

That’s because when ultraviolet (UV) light hits unprotected skin, the skin responds by increasing production of melanocytes (the compounds that give skin its pigment). “A tan is your skin’s way of putting out an SOS,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology, Yale School of Medicine.

Sun Damage Doesn't Discriminate

“I hear from some of my African-American patients that they are deciding to embrace their heritage and want darker skin,” says Downie, “so they are going in the sun or to tanning beds to get darker.” But what many people of color don’t realize is that they aren’t immune to skin damage or skin cancer.

While it’s true that lighter skin can accrue more damage more quickly, no skin tone provides full protection from UV rays. “A fair-skinned Caucasian person has a natural SPF of about 3,” says Gohara. “I have darker skin, probably more like an SPF 13.” But, she adds, “No one, no matter how dark they are, carries enough natural protection to skip sunscreen and not damage their skin.”

More On Sun Protection

Even though skin cancer is rarer in people with darker skin than it is in Caucasians, African-Americans and Hispanics both have high mortality rates if they do develop the disease.

A 2017 analysis published in the journal Medicine, found that African-Americans are 1.5 times more likely to die from melanoma than Caucasians. Because many people of color (and sometimes even their doctors) don’t think they’re vulnerable to skin cancer, the early warning signs can easily go unnoticed.

Skin cancer in people of color also often shows up in unexpected places (like the bottoms of the feet and palms of the hands). That means the skin cancer isn’t diagnosed until a later stage when the disease is more difficult to treat. In a 2006 study published in the Archives of Dermatology, researchers analyzed 1,690 melanoma cases. They found that 26 percent of cancers diagnosed in Hispanics and 52 percent of those in African-Americans were advanced, compared with 16 percent of Caucasians.

Tanning Beds Aren't a Safer Bet

Tanning beds and bulbs emit UVA and UVB rays—just like the sun does. And even though they come from an artificial light source, these rays can damage your skin—again just like the sun does.

The rays from some indoor tanning beds may even be stronger than those from the sun, Gohara says.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services includes tanning beds on their list of known carcinogens—right up there with asbestos and tobacco. Indoor tanning is estimated to cause more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. annually.

In fact, according to the AAD, even one indoor tanning session can increase your risk of melanoma by 20 percent.

Tanned Skin Without the Skin Damage

The good news is that with the right protection you can safely spend time in the sun—and then get your “tan” from a bottle.

“If you want to spend time outside, protect your skin,” says Downie. “That means wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, and reapplying it at least every 2 hours.” Hats, sun-protective clothing, and umbrellas can help too.

Self-tanning products are safe and generally don’t cause irritation to the skin. The main ingredient in self tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It reacts with skin cells on the top layer of your skin to create a temporarily darker color. As those skin cells are shed over the course of a few days, the color will gradually fade. “Very few of my patients have ever complained of a skin reaction to self tanner,” says Downie. “Unless you’re allergic to DHA, you shouldn’t have a problem.”

When it comes to faking a glow, self tanner has come a long way since the days when it left behind nothing but a streaky, cheese-puff-colored mess that fooled no one. “People of all skin tones can definitely get a reasonably real-looking tan if they use the right product for their skin,” says Anna Stankiewicz, a spray tanning specialist at Louise O’Connor Salon, in New York City.

To make your “tan” look as natural as possible, Stankiewicz suggests selecting a product that’s not too dark. “Look for one that’s close to your natural skin color,” she says. (Many products are labeled “fair” or “light,” “medium” and “dark.”)

Lotions designed to darken skin gradually are basically self tanner diluted with moisturizer. “So when you pick those it’s about how fast you want to see the color,” says Stankiewicz. “A lighter one will take a few days to show up, while a darker formula will give noticeable color in a day.” Follow her other tips for a foolproof fake tan:

• If you are planning to shave or wax, do it before you apply tanner.

• Always exfoliate with a non-oily scrub before applying tanner. “Oil-based products leave a residue behind, and that barrier means your tan can get streaky and not last as long,” says Stankiewicz.

• The skin in areas like feet, ankles, elbows, knees, and hands is drier and absorbs more color. Use lotion on those spots first for more even self-tanner application, and use a lighter touch when applying tanner to those areas. People with darker skin tones may even want to skip application on those areas to avoid creating areas that are too dark, says Stankiewicz.

• Start with a small amount and add more if you need it, building up your color gradually.

• Always wash your hands with soap after you finish applying self tanner or your palms will turn unnaturally dark.

• If you catch a mistake (like streaks or splotches) within 3 hours of application, you can try to exfoliate it away. “Use lemon juice and baking soda on a wet towel and rub in a circular motion,” says Stankiewicz. If you’re left with a noticeably lighter area after exfoliating, reapply a thin layer of self tanner, being careful to blend it in well to surrounding skin.

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