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Whatever your natural skin color, you may have strong views about tanning (for or against). Here’s what turned things around for a first-year graduate student at Rutgers University, New Jersey: “My father has very fair skin and had skin cancer on his back from not wearing sunblock outside. It has made me more proactive in avoiding skin damage from tanning.”

Any tan is an unhealthy tan

Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no such thing as a “healthy” tan. Any tan is a sign of skin cell damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can lead to prematurely-aged skin (hello, wrinkles) and skin cancer.

Tanning beds blast out UV radiation

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Skin damage from UV radiation comes from both the sun’s rays and artificial sunlight. In fact, sunlamps used in indoor tanning beds may be more harmful than the sun. That’s because they give off the same high-intensity UV rays all the time, while the sun’s intensity changes throughout the day and year. “There are no regulations to monitor the amount or intensity of UV light emitted by the [bulbs] used in most tanning facilities in most states,” says Dr. Jonathan S. Weiss, a dermatologist who practices in Georgia. “So the amount of damaging rays that [you] receive may vary and be excessive.”

Anyone can get skin cancer

More people get skin cancer from indoor tanning than develop lung cancer from smoking, according to a 2014 study in JAMA Dermatology. In this meta-analysis of 88 studies in 16 countries, university students appeared more likely than the general population to have used tanning beds. More than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the US each year are linked to indoor tanning.

Lighter-skinned people are not the only ones who get skin cancer, although they are at higher risk. Anyone who uses indoor tanning beds or spends too much time in the sun without protection is at risk. For example, acral lentiginous melanoma is a rare type of skin cancer that is more common among darker-skinned people.

“I believe it’s important for [people with darker skin] to protect themselves from the sun—not to avoid getting darker, but to avoid developing skin cancer,” says a third-year student at Rollins College, Florida.

Here’s what skin cancer can mean

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People who were exposed to indoor tanning in early life (including young adulthood) have the highest risk of these forms of skin cancer, according to JAMA Dermatology (2014):

  • Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer
  • Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of cancer in people aged 15–19; BCC is rarely fatal but can damage the appearance of the skin
  • Squamous cell carcinoma, another common form of skin cancer, which is disfiguring and occasionally fatal

Tanning isn’t worth the risk of skin damage, according to 87 percent of students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey. “In high school I tanned so much, I feel like I got addicted to tanning. I got a skin infection from a tanning bed and was scared to go to the dermatologist in case she told me I had skin cancer,” says a graduate student at Kutztown University, Pennsylvania. “I am forever done tanning. Team SPF 50.” Check out these alternative ways to make the most of your color.

7 ways to look and feel tan without a tanning bed

Opting for a spray tan means you can go to the tanning salon without damaging your skin. But look out: Spray tans can be pricey (anywhere from $25 to $70), so you may want to save them for special occasions. Spray tans tend to last about a week and, when done correctly, they can give you a natural-looking, sun-kissed bronze.

How to make a spray tan work for you

  • Do your research. Find out what spray tan method the salon uses. Some people have sensitive skin, so you may want to test the product on a patch of skin (somewhere discreet) to see whether or not you have an allergic reaction to it.
  • Exfoliate first. Use a loofah, gentle washcloth, or exfoliating mitt (it looks like an oven mitt). This will help slough off dead skin cells on the surface of your skin to give you an even glow.
  • Shave or wax first (if you want to). If you plan to remove body hair, do so before heading to the salon. It will help exfoliate your skin.
  • Avoid the orange glow. Skip a few weeks between sprays and gradually increase the shade of your tan instead of going dark all at once.

“After being a lifeguard for eight years and doing more damage to my skin than I care to admit, I’ve learned to use faux tanning products. I especially like spray tan products.”
—Third-year student, College of the Desert, California

“Spray tans work well after the first [time you take a] shower, but they have a tendency to darken clothes. Don’t wear light colors if you spray tan!”
—Recent graduate, University of North Dakota School of Law

Worried that your skin may look washed out? Every skin tone has a color palette that can flatter you year-round. This applies to any skin color, gender, and any type of clothing. There are three main types of skin undertones:

  • Cool (pink, red, or bluish undertones)
  • Warm (yellow, peachy, golden undertones)
  • Neutral (this can have both pink and yellow undertones)

Step 1: Figure out your undertones

  • The jewelry test: Do you look better in gold or silver?

Gold = warm undertones
Silver = cool undertones
Both = neutral

  • Think yellow: Picture yourself in a yellow shirt. If you look great in yellow, you probably have warm undertones. If yellow is not your best color, you probably have cool undertones.

Step 2: Dress your best

  • Colors for warm undertones: You may look best in earth tones such as brown, yellow, orange, orangey-red, and moss green.
  • Colors for cool undertones: Go for jewel tones like blue, purple, teal, deep red, and emerald green.
  • Neutral undertones: Lucky you. You probably look good in colors for both cool and warm undertones.

“I tried to tan once but decided it was not worth the risk. People better like me for who I am and not how dark I am. I am pasty and proud of it.”
—Recent graduate, Northern Illinois University

Bronzer can be your best friend. Makeup provides a short-term healthy glow in just a few easy steps. Guys can wear bronzer too, and there are some great men’s products out there for natural-looking bronzed skin.

How to get your bronze on

  • Know your options. Bronzers come in three forms: powder, cream, and gel. Each one has its own benefits. Powder is quick and almost error-proof, cream gives a dewy look, and gel provides a sheer look that is great for oily skin.
  • Choose your shade wisely. The most natural-looking bronzers have brown tones with hints of red. Avoid anything with an orange tone. To keep it from looking fake, choose a bronzer that is only half a shade darker than your skin tone. Not sure of your shade? Ask a friend to help you pick the right match.
  • Apply it. Use bronzer where the sun would naturally hit your face—forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin.
  • Check yourself out. Want to turn up the natural glow even more? Sweep pink or rose blush on the apples of your cheeks after bronzing.

If hitting up a spray tan salon isn’t your scene, try using a self-tanner in the comfort of your own home. Self-tanners can be found at your local drugstore, and can fit any budget (prices range from about $10 to over $100 for the fancy stuff). Most products last three to seven days when applied correctly.

How to self-tan without regrets

  • Prep first. As with a spray tan, exfoliate before you begin, and if you want to shave or wax, do that now too.
  • Rub it in. Apply the tanner in sections (such as arms, then legs, then torso). Massage it into your skin in a circular motion. Remember to wash your hands in between sections or wear gloves to avoid the dreaded orange palm.
  • Patience is key. When you’re done, wait at least 10 minutes before getting dressed, unless you want streaky clothes.
  • Double up. Try a self-tanner that also has SPF 30 or higher to show off your new tan and prevent unsightly burns at the same time. If you can’t find a self-tanner with SPF, wear sunscreen with at least SPF 30 in addition to your tanner.

How to apply self-tanner

“I have used a self-tanning product for certain occasions. It left no streaks and looked completely natural and subtle.”
—Third-year student, East Tennessee State University

You don’t need to avoid the sun completely. With a few stylish accessories that are probably already in your closet, you can still safely get outdoors. Hats and sunglasses are your best bet, and just about everyone can rock them.

Your slay-it guide to hats and sunglasses

  • Cover up. Look for hats with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck. Floppy beach hats and even cowboy hats are great options. Hats made out of canvas provide better sun protection than straw hats.
  • Wear a baseball cap plus sunscreen. Your favorite baseball cap is great for sun protection, but it only protects your face. Use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your ears and the back of your neck, too.
  • Avoid squinting. Sunglasses shield your eyes from UV rays and protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure. Shades that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Most sunglasses sold in the US meet this standard.
  • Complete your ensemble. Slather on sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) to protect the rest of your skin, particularly your arms, legs, chest, and anywhere else that’s likely to be exposed.

“Whenever I go to the beach or spend significant amounts of time outside with my skin exposed, I can see the effects of the sun within an hour. If I spend too long outside without protection, my skin gets all peely and gross. It’s a problem.”
—Second-year graduate student, The University of Texas at Tyler

Studies have found that tanning can be addictive. But it’s not always the tan itself that creates the addiction—it’s also the warmth of the sunbed. If you’re craving heat, especially in the colder months, trade tanning for a warm shower or bath at home. If you add in some candles and relaxing music, you can warm up and de-stress at the same time. When it’s warm out, use a sun umbrella or spend most of your time in a covered area.

What’s the easiest and most affordable option? Embrace your natural glow, no matter how tan it is (or isn’t). Studies show that the fake-tan look is fading in popularity anyway. “Today, the trend is toward embracing your natural skin tone,” Eleanor Langston, former beauty director at Fitness magazine, told the Skin Cancer Foundation. “It just looks fresher and so much more sophisticated.”

Forgoing the tanning salon won’t ruin your love life, either. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 86 percent of students said they don’t care at all whether or not their romantic interest is tan. If you feel confident and comfortable in your own skin, it will show. Put your worries of being too pale or too dark to rest and learn to love the skin tone you were born with.

“I’m far too proud as a pasty white vampire to use any tanning products.”
—First-year student, Indian Hills Community College, Iowa

“I don’t do anything to look tan. I rock pasty year round!”
—Third-year graduate student, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

“I’m Hispanic and am satisfied with my natural skin color.”
—First-year student, Indian Hills Community College, Iowa

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Article sources

Jonathan S. Weiss, MD, FAAD, dermatologist, Gwinnett Dermatology, Georgia.

American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.). How to apply self-tanner. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/skin-care/self-tanner-how-to-apply

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, June). Surveillance summaries. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6304.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=youth-risk-behavior-surveillance-united-states-2013-pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, June 23). Sun safety. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety.htm

Cust, A., Armstrong, B., Goumas, C., Jenkins, M., et al. (2011). Sunbed use during adolescence and early adulthood is associated with increased risk of early-onset melanoma. International Journal of Cancer, 128(10), 2425–2435. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ijc.25576

Mogensen, M., & Jemec, G. (2010). The potential carcinogenic risk of tanning beds: Clinical guidelines and patient safety advice. Cancer Management and Research, 2, 277–282.

Mosher, C., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2010). Addiction to indoor tanning: Relation to anxiety, depression, and substance use. Archives of Dermatology, 146, 412–417.

Samotin, P. (2013, August 12). How to figure out what colors look best on you using your skin’s undertones. StyleCaster.com. Retrieved from http://stylecaster.com/cool-warm-skin-undertones/

The Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Bronzer not required: Beauty trends from the experts. Retrieved from http://www.skincancer.org/healthy-lifestyle/go-with-your-own-glow/bronzer-not-required

The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2015, February 9). Skin cancer facts. Retrieved from http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts

US Food and Drug Administration. (2010, May 11). Indoor tanning: The risk of ultraviolet rays. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm186687.htm

Wehner, M. R., Chren, M. M., Nameth, D., Choudhry, A., et al. (2014). International prevalence of indoor tanning: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatology, 150(4), 390–400.

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Joelle Zaslow is a communications specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital Research Institute, Boston. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts.