Fact vs Fiction: Can a Base Tan Prevent Sunburn?

It’s a wives’ tale that’s been around for years: Getting a base tan will keep your skin from burning in the sun. As summer approaches, we put this tale to the test by asking Delray Beach, FL, dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby if there was any truth to it. The answer may surprise you.

“A tan is the skin’s way of toughening up,” she says. “Light creates a reaction in the skin, and the skin tries to protect itself. That protective mechanism is the tan. When you don’t have a tan, your skin responds with an inflammatory reaction. That’s the burn.”

Dr. Allenby says that by definition, then, a base tan would protect your skin from burning. But, it’s a double-edged sword. To get a base tan requires your skin to burn first, so that it toughens itself up. Not only will this damage your skin in the process, but it will also prevent your skin from doing its job in the future.

“The skin is meant to say, ‘You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time!’ People think a tan is pretty, but it’s actually saying you have damaged yourself and now your skin isn’t going to function properly.”

The bottom line? “Is a base tan going to keep someone from burning? Yes, but they’ve already gotten a burn before that tan,” says Dr. Allenby. “A base tan is probably going to keep you from suffering in the short-term. But is it good for your skin in the long-term? Not really.”