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Whatever your natural skin colour, you may have strong views about tanning (for or against). Here’s what influenced a third-year undergraduate at Mount Royal University, Alberta: “I’m susceptible to skin cancer, as my mother has basal cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer that results from growths on your skin). I’m careful and respect my body.”

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

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. “UV radiation—from whatever source—is a carcinogen,” said Dr. Cheryl Rosen, Head of Dermatology at University Health Network, Ontario (speaking to The Globe and Mail). “Meta-analysis of studies of people who have had skin cancer seem to indicate that there is a causal association between UV exposure from artificial tanning sources and skin cancer, and there seems to be a greater risk if you have the artificial exposure earlier in life.”

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 undergraduate at Rollins College, Florida.

Here’s what skin cancer can mean

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 89 percent of students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey. “I stopped tanning in high school. I had a terrible reaction from overdoing it that left me with hives all over my body. Not a good time,” says a second-year undergraduate at Laurentian University, Ontario. Check out these alternative ways to make the most of your colour.

Opting for a spray tan means you can go to the tanning salon without damaging your skin. But look out: Spray tans can be pricy (anywhere from $30 to $100), 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.

“If you take care of your skin properly, like using lotion every time you get out of the shower and pat yourself dry, [a spray tan] lasts for almost a week and takes a lot less time than tanning in a bed!”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, South Dakota State University

“I use mainly lotion tanners. And for very special occasions, I’ll get a spray tan.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

Worried that your skin may look washed out? Every skin tone has a colour palette that can flatter you year-round. This applies to any skin colour, 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 colour, you probably have cool undertones.

Step 2   Dress your best

  • Colours for warm undertones: You may look best in earth tones such as brown, yellow, orange, orangey-red, and moss green.
  • Colours 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 colours for both cool and warm undertones.

“I don’t think it’s important to look tan, and besides, I’m super pale and fake tan products look terrible on me! I’m all about natural beauty—makeup is expensive, and nobody has time for that!”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

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.

“Sometimes I spray my legs at home with a self tanner. Another alternative is I wear makeup bronzer on my face. Both work well.”
—Second-year graduate student, Algonquin College, Ontario

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’ve used tanning spray before, but it made my skin look dirty and not natural.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

“I have used a self-tanning product for certain occasions. It left no streaks and looked completely natural and subtle.”
—Third-year undergraduate, 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 favourite 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 Canada meet this standard, but be sure to check the label before you buy.
  • 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.

“The only sun damage I have experienced has been when I was too stubborn to listen to my mother while being outside, and received a sunburn that turned me red enough to make a tomato jealous.”
—First-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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 (US). “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, 84 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 very pale but I don’t mind. I don’t feel the need to make myself fit in and be tan like everyone else.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Saskatchewan

“I sometimes spray tan for special events, but otherwise I embrace the pale and will gloat later when I’m wrinkle free!”
—Second-year undergraduate, Laurentian University, Ontario

“I’m super pale and I burn horribly, so I’d never go tanning in my life (unless I had a burning desire for pain!)”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“My skin is brown and beautiful.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, San Diego State University

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Article sources

Cheryl Rosen, MD, Head of Dermatology, University Health Network, Ontario.

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 https://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 https://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 https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ijc.25576

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

The Globe and Mail. (2008, May 20). Awareness: When it comes to your skin, it pays to play it safe. Randall Anthony Communications Inc., The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://v1.theglobeandmail.com/partners/free/sr/sun/sunawareness.pdf

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 https://stylecaster.com/cool-warm-skin-undertones/

The Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Bronzer not required: Beauty trends from the experts. Retrieved from https://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 https://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 https://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.