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Sun tan—is there a safer option?

Data from a 2019 national Cancer Council poll revealed that two in five Australians desired a suntan. This desire can come from a range of influences. Living in Australia, with a history of a sun tanning culture and an environment where the sunrays damage our skin for many months of the year makes, it’s hard to challenge the desired stereotypical tanned image.

With two in three Australians developing some form of skin cancer in their lifetime, seeking safer ways to achieve this look is perhaps worth considering.

So, for those Aussies wanting a suntan, without causing skin damage, is there a safer alternative?

What UV can you tan in?

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and the main cause is overexposure to UV radiation from sunlight.

UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted from the sun and is responsible for causing skin damage, premature ageing, and skin cancer. A UV level of three and above is strong enough to damage the DNA within our skin cells, increasing the risk of those cells becoming cancerous. This is concerning considering in South Australia, UV averages three and above for most of the year (beginning of August to end of April) and reaches extreme levels (11+) over the summer months.

There are two types of UV radiation that enters the earth’s atmosphere—UVA and UVB. Both cause skin damage and DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. UVA is primarily responsible for ageing of the skin and UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn. Damage to skin cells triggers the production of more melanin; a pigmented chemical which darkens the skin. This means that by the time you have developed a tan, the skin is already damaged, and your chance of developing skin cancer has increased.

So, with the implications of sun tanning in mind, what are the alternatives?

Fake Tanning

Cancer Council encourages the community to embrace natural skin tones to help challenge the desire for a suntan. However, Cancer Council appreciates that changing society’s attitudes takes decades, so if you are interested in tanning your skin, using a topical fake tanning product is safer than tanning in the sun or using a solarium.

There are a wide range of fake tanning products available on the market. Tanning lotions, sprays, creams, mousses and combined moisturiser and fake tan products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical dye that temporarily stains the skin, giving the appearance of a tan. The dye interacts and binds with the dead skin cells located in the upper layer of the skin. The colour comes off when the dead skin cells flake off, which is normally around one week after application.

DHA is considered safe for topical application on the skin, and there is no evidence to say it causes skin cancer. However, it is important to take care around the eyes, lips, mucous membranes (inside the nose and mouth) when applying, and ensure you are not inhaling the product if using a spray, as there is limited research on the safety of DHA exposure to these areas of the body.

Fake tan products usually contain three to five per cent DHA (professional products can range up to 15 per cent) with lower concentrations producing a light tan and higher concentrations resulting in a darker colour. Some brands may include a sunscreen, however the sun protection factor (SPF) lasts for only a few hours after application—not for the length of time that the ‘tan’ remains.

It is important to still apply sunscreen on top of developed fake tan to protect skin from UV radiation and use a combination of all 5 sun protection measures when outdoors—think slip, slop, slap, seek and slide.

If you are among the two in five people wanting a suntan this summer, using a fake tanning product is the safer option to achieve the look instead of sunbaking.

Can you tan with sunscreen on?

A tan is a sign of skin damage. Sun screen is one sun protection measure to help protect your skin against UV radiation. No sunscreen, even if it is reapplied regularly, offers complete protection against UV radiation.  Always use sunscreen in conjunction with other forms of sun protection.

Remember to use a combination of sun protection measures even with a developed fake tan to protect your skin, not just from the aging effects of UV, but more importantly, from skin cancer.

Cancer Council recommends applying SPF 30 or higher sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapplying every two hours, wearing sun protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, and seeking shade to protect your skin from skin cancer. Always check the recommended sun protection times before heading outside, you can download the Cancer Council SunSmart App here.

To find out more about protecting your skin and how to be sun safe visit:

Cancer Council SA Charlie Sheridan Community Education Project Officer

Charlie Sheridan
Community Education Project Officer

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