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How Does Tanning Affect the Skin?



We’ve all heard the warnings about how tanning can damage your skin, but what really happens when you sun bathe? Both the natural sun and tanning beds can do serious damage to your skin, and a tan is just evidence that your body is reacting to protect itself against harmful UVA and UVB ultraviolet radiation.

Our skin protects all our delicate inner workings from the outside world, and nothing assaults it more than the sun. The top layers called the epidermis are the ones that do all of the work and react to UV rays. However, the deeper layers known as the dermis are also affected by sun exposure.

Increased Melanin Production

The layer that is most active during sun and UV exposure is the malpighian layer. This is where the melanocyte cells that produce melanin are located. You may be familiar with the term melanin, because it is what tans the skin. When UV exposure occurs melanocytes don’t increase in number, they just ramp up the melanin production to protect the skin against the UV rays. This in turn can darken the skin, but the tanning effect is actually a sign of sun damage.

Keep in mind the protection provided by melanin is minimal at the equivalent of just SPF 2-4. If you keep tanning more skin damage will occur.


A sunburn can occur from intense and/or prolonged UVB exposure. It damages skin cells within the epidermis below the outermost layer known as the stratum corneum, which is made up of dead skin cells. The sunburn is a result of the immune system’s reaction to the cellular damage that’s occurring. Blood flow is increased so that disease and infection fighting white blood cells can go in and flush out the damaged cells. The cell damage is what makes skin burn, the rush of blood flow is what makes skin red and warm and the removal of the damaged skin cells is what causes peeling to occur.

Sunburns are a very evident sign of skin damage, but not just because your skin changes color. Even people with dark skin tones that don’t turn red can get a sunburn, and they will feel the warmth and tenderness from it just as fair skinned people will.

Melanocyte Damage

When UV rays damage melanocytes that is when the serious problems start and melanoma can develop. Melanoma is less common, but the deadliest form of skin cancer. The good news is you can protect yourself to lessen your chances of getting melanoma and if found early it’s almost always curable.

While heredity does make some people more predisposed to getting skin cancers, UV exposure is also a big factor. The more a person tans and exposes themselves to UV rays the more damage they can do to the DNA of skin cells, including melanocytes.

Premature Aging

UV exposure, particularly UVA exposure, is one of the quickest ways to age the skin. UV rays break down the elastin and collagen that gives skin its tone, tightness and texture. Eventually this will cause the skin to wrinkle, loosen, take on a leathery texture and dark spots will create uneven tone.

Unlike tans and sunburns, premature aging is a long-term affect of the UV damage done while tanning. Anytime you get a suntan or sunburn you’re also guaranteed to be adding to the premature aging damage.

Given all the negative effects that come with tanning, your best bet is to fake your melanin production with a self-tanner. There are lots of options today including lotions, sprays, foams and gels. These products can make you a shade or two darker within hours and you can deepen the color with additional applications. It’s safer, quicker and healthier than a tradition UV created tan.

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