If end-of-summer plans include a beach vacation, you might be wondering if a “base” tan from a few hours outdoors or at a tanning salon is a good way to prevent sunburn.

In reality, having a suntan does next to nothing when it comes to protecting your skin.

More on Sunscreens and Sun Safety

“A light tan may provide about the equivalent of an SPF 4,” says Doug Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “So having a tan would be much less protective than essentially any sunscreen product available.”

It's a common idea, especially among younger people. According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health, 42 percent of the 18 to 25-year-olds surveyed agreed with the statement, “I like to have a base tan before I get a lot of sun.” 

What Happens When You Get a Suntan

The small amount of protection a base tan might provide is actually more harmful than helpful, experts say.

“When ultraviolet radiation hits the skin, it causes injury to the DNA of the skin cells,” says David J. Leffell, M.D., professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. Your skin changes color because specialized cells in the epidermis (top layer) of your skin called melanocytes produce the pigment melanin in an attempt to shield the skin from further harm.

So your base tan is providing no protection from future sun exposure, and its very presence is an indication that the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays have already damaged your skin.

The Right Way to Protect Your Skin

It’s a better idea to practice safe sun strategies, which include using a broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 30 or higher and reapplying it every 2 hours, or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. It’s also wise to cover up with sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats.

And if you really want a little color before you hit the pool or the beach, get your glow with a temporary self-tanning cream or lotion. Just remember that a fake tan offers zero protection from UV damage, so be sure to cover up with sunscreen and clothing and seek shade whenever possible.