What Really Happens To Your Skin When You Tan (& Why It's Worse Than You Realized)

After a long winter, there is no better feeling than having the warm sun on our skin. If we spend time outdoors and attain the bronze glow that comes with sun-kissed skin, it feels like a successful summer day. However, you do not have to have sunburned skin to do damage to your skin cells. Believe it or not, a tan is skin damage, and the darker we get, the more harm we do to our skin.


Sun exposure poses a kind of paradox. Yes, vitamin D is good for our bodies, but how we get it is what matters. According to Harvard T.H. Chan, vitamin D can lessen cancer cell growth and reduce inflammation, helping us keep the threat of infection low. However, too much exposure is very damaging. To enjoy the perks of vitamin D without cancer-causing cell damage, it's important to understand what happens when we get a tan.

What tanned skin means

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Although we associate sun-kissed skin with health and happiness, our skin cells are anything but happy. A tan is the skin's reaction to getting too much sun. When we expose our skin to the sun unprotected, our cells work overtime to protect themselves from further damage. Self explains, "When your skin cells are threatened by the UV rays coming at them from the sun, they kick into protection mode, distributing darker pigment cells (melanocytes) to those cells on the surface." Skin appears darker because the cells are producing melanin to fight off further damage from the sun, resulting in tanned skin.


Although many seek out a base tan so that they do not have to worry about getting burned in future sun outings, the level of tan we have is a good indicator of just how much damage we are doing. The tanner your skin, the more at risk it is for cancerous cell growth. The skin creates that tan to create a barrier by blanketing the cells in melanin. The darker your skin gets from the sun, the harder your body is working to keep you safe.

What to do for protection

To help our skin in its tireless work to protect us, we need to use sunscreen. Even if you've built up your base tan, you are only getting about an SPF of 3 from that layer of melanin. Doctors say that you should go out in the sun with sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above to get adequate protection from the product. Instead of seeking out tanned skin, seek out healthy skin. Besides skin cancer, there are many other negative consequences to too much sun exposure. Fine lines, dark spots, and wrinkles are some of the side effects of not properly protecting your skin from the sun.


Wanting sun-kissed skin is normal, but the cost is too high over time. Instead, shop for an SPF skin moisturizer for your morning skincare routine, purchase an SPF of 30 or higher, and head for the shade when the sun is the strongest. Healthy skin is sun-protected skin. It's working overtime to protect us, and these small steps can help it along the way.