Both a sunburn AND a tan signal dangerous DNA damage to your skin cells. (Photo credit: Corbis/Drew Myers)
Bad news: Your lobster-like complexion won’t miraculously turn into a golden glow. “A burn is nothing more than the skin’s response to DNA damage of the skin cells,” says Dan Wasserman, MD, a dermatologist in Naples, Florida. “The body is shunting blood to the [skin] to fix and repair it. You have a fire, and the redness is the fire department.”
So why do you sometimes go to bed with a burn and seemingly wake up with a tan? The explanation: The same type of ultraviolet radiation — UVB rays — that sets your skin on fire is also behind your bronzing. “What gave you the burn also gave you the tan,” Wasserman tells Yahoo Health. “But it wasn’t the burn that gave you the tan.”
More specifically, UVB rays are responsible for a type of tanning called delayed pigment darkening. “This usually begins two days after the exposure and lasts 10 to 14 days,” Wasserman says. That means the healing of your sunburn may happen to coincide with the deepening of your tan. (UVA rays create “immediate pigment darkening,” so you may already have some color before the delayed darkening occurs.)
What exactly is a tan, then, if not a faded-out sunburn? When your skin cells’ DNA is damaged, your body attempts to protect itself by sending pigment to shroud the nucleus of the cell, where the genetic material is housed, says Wasserman. “That acts like an umbrella to the DNA of the cell.” He compares a tan to a callus — an attempt to shield the body from further trauma. Unfortunately, it’s not a very effective one. “It’s not good protection,” he says. “A tan is like an SPF of 2.”
That means the oft-repeated warning still applies: There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. “You can’t get a tan unless you’ve been damaged,” Wasserman says. “I always tell my patients it’s the equivalent of a pre-cancerous glow. A tan is a smoker’s cough. A tan is like being jaundiced if you’re an alcoholic. Drinking for the liver, drugs for the brain, smoke for the lungs, and sun for the skin — it’s all the same.”
Need some pointers for how to protect your skin from the sun’s rays? Here are three tips to apply sunscreen the right way.
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