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How to get a suntan safely

How to get a suntan safely

You always turn up to the beach with good intentions. You’ve got a beach towel draped over your shoulder, a pair of sunglasses obscuring your face, the latest crime-slash-thriller-slash-sci-fi novel tucked in your bag, and an oversized bottle of sun cream stashed beside it. You’re ready to get enviably bronzed skin – safely, of course. But fast forward a few hours, and you wake up from an unplanned nap dusted with sand, your novel barely cracked open, your sun cream hardly touched, and your skin burnt to a crisp. And yes, you look as ridiculous as you feel, but an even more harsh reality? You’ve just done damage to your skin. 

For all the benefits of the sun – a boost in serotonin, a dose of vitamin D – you can’t deny the long-term damage the sun can have on your skin. “No tan is a safe tan,” says Dr Tsippora Shainhouse of SkinSafe Dermatology. “Exposure to UV rays causes accelerated skin ageing and increases your risk for developing skin cancer and melanoma.” Even in the UK – a nation not exactly known for its surplus of sunshine – the National Health Service (NHS) reports that around 13,500 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year. 

If you’re not put off by the grim health risks, perhaps you will be alarmed by the slew of superficial side effects. We all know that too much sun can cause premature ageing (see wrinkles and sun spots), so while your tan might look like a youthful glow now, it can lead to prune-like, uneven skin in a decade or two. But if you’re going to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun, there are certain precautions you can take to get your dose of sunshine as safely as possible.

Know your SPF facts 

It’s time to properly understand what all the sunscreen jargon actually means, starting with SPF. In a nutshell, SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is a measure of the amount of ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) protection. It’s usually rated on a scale of 2 to 50+ based on the degree of protection it offers, and to be sufficiently protected against the sun, Dr Shainhouse recommends picking a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 in the summer – and at least SPF 15 during the rest of the year. 

For optimal coverage, invest in a broad-spectrum sunscreen. “The American Academy of Dermatology recommends always wearing a broad-spectrum product to help shield the skin from the widest range of UV rays as possible.”Dr Shainhouse says. “Broad-spectrum means that the sunscreen blocks both UVA (which prematurely age your skin) rays and UVB (which can lead to sunburn and skin cancer) rays." 

If your sunscreen offers UVA protection, it will have a star rating, and the higher the number of stars, the more effective it will be. The British Association of Dermatologists recommends using sunscreen with at least a 4-star UVA protection. And don’t forget to check the expiry date, as most sun creams are ineffective after two or three years. 

Apply sunscreen liberally & often

The hard reality is you’re probably not applying enough sunscreen – most people don’t. If you’re just applying sunscreen to your arms, neck, and head, the NHS recommends using two teaspoons. If you’re wearing swim shorts, you’ll want to increase the amount to two tablespoons to ensure your entire body is covered. And don’t forget those easy-to-miss places, like your ears, neck, and feet. 

When it comes to frequency, more is more. “Sunscreen should be reapplied every two to three hours because the UVA protection provided in broad-spectrum sunscreens tend to break down within that time,” says Dr Shainhouse. The frequency should increase if you plan on taking a dip in the pool or ocean, so be sure to lather up again immediately after towel drying. 

Time your tan wisely

While the sun can damage your skin at any time throughout the year, there are specific times you should be especially cautious. “Avoid or limit unnecessary sun exposure during peak sun hours (between 11 am and 3 pm), and seek shade when possible,” says Dr Shainhouse. If you’re jetsetting elsewhere, be sure to check their government’s website for their sun safety advice. 

There’s also no point in spending all sunlight hours tanning. Your body has a finite amount of time (usually a couple of hours or less) that it can produce melanin – aka the pigment that helps your skin tan – so lingering too long won’t do you any benefits.

Wear the right clothing 

If you’re committed to laying out at the beach for a couple of hours, be strategic with your clothing choices during the remainder of the day. Long-sleeved shirts and shorts are the ideal choices, and luckily, there are a lot of pieces out there that will help you stay cool. Loose-fitting linen trousers and shirts are a great choice, as they’re breathable and don’t cling to the body. It's also best to throw on a hat (preferably a wide-brimmed style), especially if you're bald or have thinning hair. 

One area that’s often overlooked when sun tanning is your eyes. Just like your skin, the surface of your eyes are prone to painful burning, so avoid looking directly at the sun and always wear sunglasses – Dr Shainhouse recommends UV-protective lenses.

Always avoid the sun bed

There’s never a good excuse to climb into a sun bed – they provide your skin with a minimal amount of vitamin D and will lead to a higher risk of sun cancer. And avoid tanning oils and creams while you’re at it. They’ll cause you to bake at a faster rate while providing you with insufficient SPF protection. “If you want to look tanned, choose a sunless self-tanner or bronzer, or splurge for a spray tan,” Dr Shainhouse says.


Words: Allison Pavlick
Illustration: Calum Heath