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An Expert Dermatologist Weighs In On The Controversial "Base Tan" Theory

A "base tan" is thought to help prevent a sunburn. But experts say it can actually do more harm than good.

Posted on May 11, 2018, at 4:51 p.m. ET

The "base tan" theory says that if pale skin gets a little tan — usually from indoor tanning — it can prevent a sunburn later. But is there any truth behind it?

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It seems logical enough, right? If your skin is pale after hiding under jeans and sweaters all winter, then a little color will prevent a nasty sunburn during those first days of summer.

The base tan theory has been around forever, but can a tan actually provide any protection for your skin? We spoke to an expert dermatologist to find out.

A base tan can provide at most SPF 3 or 4, which does not even come close to most sunscreens. So no, it's not a solid form of protection.

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"If something has an SPF or 3 or 4, this basically means it will take three to four times longer before your skin starts to burn," Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a board-certified dermatologist at Complete Skin MD in New York City, told BuzzFeed News.

So let's say, without protection, you normally burn within 20 minutes. If you have SPF 3 on, it would take 60 minutes before you burn — not a long time! Most sunscreens start at SPF 15 — and you'd never see something sold on the shelves under SPF 5.

Sure, having some protection is technically better than having nothing. But UV rays are harmful to your skin whether you burn or not.

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"Is it better to tan than burn? Yes," Hale said. "But both a tan and a burn result in mutations that lead to skin cancer and premature skin aging."

A tan is basically the body's way of responding to the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

There are two types of UV rays: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVB are the chief cause of reddening and sunburns, Hale said, and UVA rays are more associated with a tan. But both UVA and UVB rays play a role in causing premature skin aging and skin cancers.

"Tanning is a stress response — the skin is gets bombarded with UV rays so it creates a tan to protect itself," Hale said. Specifically, the skin cells produce a pigment called melanin, which helps protect against UV radiation.

That's why darker-skinned people, whose skin cells naturally produce more melanin, get less damage from UV rays than light-skinned people do. Nevertheless, any UV exposure is radiation, and it's bad for skin no matter the color. "UV exposure is a mutagen, which means it can induce negative changes in body just like smoking and pollution," Hale said.

"I spend all day treating sun spots, winkles, atypical models, skin cancer, and melanoma, and it's the one common theme — more than 90% of skin cancers and premature aging is caused by damage from sun exposure," she said.

Does that mean you should hide inside forever? No. You can still go outside and enjoy the sunshine and the beach — just use protection and limit your exposure, especially if you're at higher risk for skin cancer.

Just one session in a tanning bed can increase your risk of developing melanoma by about 20%.

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"A lot of times I see people getting a base tan by means of indoor tanning, which is really dangerous," Hale said.

If you're getting a base tan, chances are you are normally pale or your skin has been covered up all winter and its lighter than normal — so that increases your risk. "Getting a base tan is a very bad idea particularly because the skin has kind of been kind of hibernating all winter and suddenly you go exposure yourself to intense, direct UV rays."

Using a tanning bed directly increases the chance of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. In fact, indoor tanning before the age of 35 raises your risk of melanoma by 75%, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

"We see a lot of melanoma in young women and it's mostly on areas typically covered — like the breasts or upper thighs. Some women just go in and just fry themselves," Hale said. So the quest to get a base tan can result in some pretty incredible damage. "A tan is temporary but the damage lasts forever."

Still want a base tan? Sunless tanning lotions and sprays are a great option. But remember, you'll still need sunscreen.

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"I think everyone should accept their natural skin color and embrace their own glow. But if you really want a base tan, the only safe way to do it is with sunless tanner," Hale said.

Sunless tanning could mean getting a spray tan at a salon or using a self-tanning product — like a lotion or foam — that gives the skin a tan (and hopefully not orange) color. Bronzing liquid and powders are another short-term option, and some may have SPF for added protection. Here's a list of top-rated self-tanning products to get started.

Once you get your desired tan color, don't just walk out onto the beach without protection. Hale recommends you use a broad spectrum sunscreen and apply it at least 15 minutes before exposure.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.