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Vacation pre-tanning: Does it really help prevent burning?

Self-tanners don't provide any real protection against burns

Self-tanners don't provide any real protection against burns or other sun-related damage, experts say. Credit: AP

As schools let out for spring break and families head to warmer, more tropical beach locales, a popular question arises in pre-vacation planning: to tan or not to tan?

Something of an urban legend, getting a "base tan" before vacation is said, by some, to help you reduce the risk of burning once you are basking in the sun.

The Daily Apple set out to find out whether the idea is based in fact or fiction, and asked a local dermatologist to help us sort it all out.

The basic answer may not surprise you: the only way to protect yourself from a burn is with SPF.

Adrienne Haughton, associate program director for Stony Brook Hospital’s Department of Dermatology, said spending time in a tanning bed before your trip will not help to guard your skin from future burns.

"Tanning beds use primarily UVA," she explained, adding that the only benefit gained would be the resulting visible tan.

In fact, she warned, laying in a bed with UVA bulbs will only significantly increase your risk of melanoma.

Self-tanning lotions might seem like a safe option because they don't actually involve any sun exposure, but still give you that starter glow. But still, Haughton said when it comes to SPF, self-tanners don’t have much of it.

Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, the main ingredient in self-tanning lotions, “has a maximum SPF of 3 or 4,” so it does not provide any real protection against burns or other sun-related damage, she said.

In fact, she says, Caucasian skin on average naturally has an SPF of 3.4, so self-tanning lotions add little in the way of extra protection.

“Therefore,” Haughton said, “self-tanners alone do not protect you from burning while on vacation.”

In the end, Haughton says, "you need to apply sunscreen" regardless of whether or not you pre-tanned for your vacation.