Why Base Tans Are Total Bull And Will Still Get You Burnt

This from someone who used to believe they wouldn't.
Publish date:
January 23, 2015
sun damage, sunscreen, tanning, uv rays, base tan, sunburn, tanning beds

Recently, before a much-needed Hawaiian vacation, I installed an app on my phone to count down the days. I was SO excited, save for one thing: after this past bummer of a summer (I live in Alaska) I was pale as milk.

Since I wasn't about to spend my precious holiday laid up like a rock lobster, I did the thing that lots of women my vintage do, I headed to my local human bake shop to work on a "base tan."

Though I'd sworn off tanning booths years ago (because, duh, sun damage), we all have our moments of weakness. As I slipped into the booth I looked down at my stretch mark marbled thighs and I felt like I was doing the right thing.

Ten minutes pass like two when you're listening to Two Door Cinema Club, and I relished every toasty second. A few hours later and my skin was prickling with a mild sunburn. Smart, real smart.

I’ve only ever been really sunburned a few times. The worst burn was while I was snorkeling in a lake full of sting-less jellyfish in a remote atoll off the coast of Borneo. I didn’t have a dive shirt, and sunscreen could've harmed the endemic organisms in the lake, so I layered a T-shirt over a sports bra and took my chances. I'd been in Borneo for a month and I had a "base tan" so I thought I was safe enough.

Considering that a T-shirt has a SPF of about 4 (and that the base tan is a lie), I "wore" that sports bra for almost five years.

I cringed in my wool pullover during our entire curling match later that night, and I thought about where my logic had gone awry. Here's what I wish I'd known then...

Getting a base tan doesn't prevent sun damage.

As we all know, getting a tan at all IS sun damage; it’s your body’s response to UV rays that have already started damaging your skin. Your skin produces melanin on the outer layers of your dermis to protect from further damage. So every tan causes cell damage. And though there are varying degrees, getting a sunburn increases your chances of developing melanoma.

Tanning beds = the sun on steroids.

Shocker, I know. Unlike actual sunlight, which has a mixture of UVA, UVB, and UVC rays of varying intensity, tanning beds are high-intensity, and almost entirely UVA radiation--the more penetrative long-wave rays. This is to speed UV damage--I mean tanning. Some people can spend a day in the sun with no ill effects, but 10 minutes in a tanning bed and they are fried like bacon. Any number of tanning attendants will assure you, “Like, tanning beds don’t even HAVE UV rays in them!” but they are also shilling Snooki’s tanning lotion for $20 a bottle...

You're actually more likely to get a sunburn with a base tan.

The "I'm already tan so I don't need that much sunblock" mentality makes people with a base tan more likely to get sunburned! Your skin’s natural SPF with a tan is around four to 10 depending on the darkness of your skin tone. I don’t know about you, but I don’t even buy moisturizer with an SPF below 15. Sauntering around in the sun for 12 hours a day with SPF 5 on? Nope.

Higher SPF sunscreen doesn’t have you covered.

Most red blooded Americans think that more is more--as evidenced by our putting bacon on everything. If SPF 30 is good, SPF 100 is basically a Patronus (an iguana with sunglasses, surely). Not really. The idea is that SPF 15 reflects about 93% of the sun’s rays, so you can stay in the sun roughly 15 times longer without experiencing sun damage. So SPF 100 would last 100 times longer--if applied correctly in perfect conditions. This creates a false sense of security after slapping on a layer of SPF 100 in the morning, which can ultimately sweat or wear off. Higher concentrations of sun-reflecting chemicals can also cause skin irritation, or even settle to the bottom of the bottle. A test of 100 SPF sunscreens from several brands found that their functional SPF was anywhere from 30 to 75, and some labeled for broad-spectrum protection, in fact, weren’t.


I get the sun love, and I fully cop to laying in it, but only while covered with SPF 30 (reapplied often) and limiting myself during peak hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is when the sun is the strongest). This winter I'm facing months of almost-darkness, and I could use some radiation, but I'm done playing around with sunburns and tanning beds. Never again!

  • What's the most hellacious sunburn you've ever had and how did you treat it?
  • Have you ever fake baked? Do you still?