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Should I get a ‘base tan’ before my beach vacation?

4 common myths and what they mean for your skin

By Karla Rosenman, MD
March 19, 2018

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Minnesotans and Wisconsinites (and others from the northern parts of the United States) know winter better than anyone. For us, the season is full of cold, short days and long nights that often seem go on forever without end. So when the days do start getting longer and warmer, or we get the chance to escape to someplace tropical, a lot of us can’t wait to spend time in the sun.

Being active outdoors is great for your mind and body! But there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to getting sun, and really, having a ‘healthy glow’ is not healthy at all. Here are 4 of the most common myths I hear:

Myth #1: I can avoid getting fried on the beach if I tan indoors before my vacation.

Fact: When your skin tans, it means it is responding to injury. So, you’re damaging your skin when you get a “base tan.”

A 2013 study found that college students who tan indoors before spring break are actually more likely to get sunburned on vacation. That’s because they mistakenly think their tan is going to protect them and skip out on covering up and using sunscreen.

Indoor tanning leads to wrinkles and brown spots at an early age. It can damage your eyes and weaken your immune system. And most seriously, it increases your risk for skin cancer, especially if done before age 35.

Myth #2: I can’t get burned when it’s cloudy.

Fact: Only a small percentage of the sun’s rays are blocked by clouds. Most of them, including UV rays, still make it through. And those are the kind that cause sunburn and can lead to cancer and cataracts.

UV rays are strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. So limit how much you’re outdoors during that time. If you do head outside, cover up with a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection and clothes made with tightly woven fabric. And protect your skin with sunscreen.

You should put sunscreen on 15-30 minutes before going outside. To fully cover your body, you need to use two tablespoons of sunscreen. It’s important to apply sunscreen under your clothes, since UV rays can go through light fabrics. And don’t forget spots like the top of your feet or tips of your ears. Again, yes, this is important to do even when it’s cloudy.

Myth #3: I have naturally dark skin, so the sunscreen with the lowest SPF will work fine for me.

Fact: While it’s true that people with naturally darker skin don’t burn as easily, they’re still at risk for skin cancer without proper protection.

Everyone should use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. The higher the SPF number, the longer the sunscreen will block UVB rays from getting to your skin. It’s also important to get a sunscreen that contains at least one of these UVA ray-blocking ingredients: avobenzone, ecamsule, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Both UVA and UVB rays are known to be cancer-causing.

Finally, know that the expiration date on sunscreen is there for a reason. Old sunscreen will not be as effective.

Myth #4: I didn’t go swimming so I don’t need to put more sunscreen on.

Fact: If you’re going to be spending time outside doing anything, sunscreen needs to be applied at least every 2 hours. If you're sweating or swimming, it needs to be reapplied even more frequently than that.

There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen, despite advertising claims.

About Karla Rosenman, MD

Dr. Karla Rosenman is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist who practices at Park Nicollet Clinic in St. Louis Park. She works with patients of all ages to treat rashes, breakouts, skin lumps and moles. And she also has expertise in looking at skin biopsies underneath a microscope – which helps in getting to the bottom of even the most stubborn skin problems. Dr. Rosenman firmly believes that each of her patients and their family members are a valued and essential member of their health care team, and works together with them to share information, arrive at diagnoses and develop treatment plans. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and twin daughters and cooking healthy meals with them. She’s also a marathoner – always making sure that she’s geared up for each race in sun protective clothing and sunscreen!

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