As it turns out, literally any amount.
At least according to Eric Schweiger, M.D., founder of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, who isn’t a fan of tans whatsoever. In many cases, a tan can cause damage the same way that a sunburn can—dehydrating the skin, speeding up signs of aging, and even leading to melanoma (that’s skin cancer). He’s not a vampire, I promise. Schweiger just thinks that a tan is indication that someone neglected proper coverage, that the same someone literally wears his sins on his sleeve in the form of a tan.
But how tan is too tan? According to the professional, just about any kind of tan is too much, because it ages you and puts you at risk of bigger, badder things. It’s Schweiger’s job to warn about this stuff, since he’s seen it all. As for you, it’s summer and it’s time to hit the sand. You’ll get a little color in your skin, and that’s mostly okay. However, if “I’m gonna get so tan” is one of your motives for being outside, then Schweiger’s expertise should convince you to scale it back a little. So read on, and enjoy the sun responsibly.
Is There Any Way to Tan Safely, Even Slowly, Throughout the Summer?
Well, not really. Sorry. Schweiger is adamant that “there is no such thing as a safe tan”—even if you’re steady with its progression and use SPF while lying out in the sun for hours on end. Ditto even if you have darker skin tone to begin with. Just because you can tan easily doesn’t mean your skin isn’t taking a hit on a more severe level. “The sign of a tan, like a burn, means you have done irreparable DNA damage to the skin,” he says. “Any amount of sun damage is dangerous. If your skin is showing signs of a tan, it means you're not using enough sunscreen or the SPF is not strong enough. You must wear a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 on all areas of exposed skin to properly protect yourself.”
That’s not to say you should be afraid to go outside. But instead of lying on the beach and frying like a piece of bacon passively, you should instead seek the sun on active occasions—going to the beach to actually go in the water, or mowing the lawn, or simply walking to the store. Cover yourself in SPF always, and don’t stand in the direct sun for long periods of time. If you have the choice, try to minimize direct sun exposure to times before 10 A.M. or after 3 P.M. Schweiger notes that this five-hour window is the time of day the sun is most overhead, direct, and damaging.
Here are some of my favorite SPF 30 sunscreens and moisturizers.
COOLA — Face SPF 30 Unscented Moisturizer, $32
It’s first and foremost a moisturizer, so just use it on your face. It’s gentle for this more sensitive skin area and feels like whipped butter in your hand. It absorbs quickly and won’t clog pores. I’m actively addicted.
Jack Black Sun Guard Sunscreen SPF 45 Oil-Free & Very Water Resistant, $21
For the direct-sun beach days, a dose of extra SPF. (It’s hard to turn down beach days, red flags be damned. I understand.) This stuff outlasts the competition for constant water exposure, so you won’t have to reapply every single time you get out of the pool or lake.
Can a tan be as dangerous as a burn?
Yes, in the long run. Both indicate that the DNA of the skin has been compromised by UV exposure, and both result in premature aging (hence the leathery skin in people who have spent their life outdoors in the sun, with protection or without it). Secondly, “melanoma will sometimes still develop in people who use UV protection,” Schweiger says. He advises getting your skin checked annually by a board-certified dermatologist, especially if you’ve been tanned or burned. This simple skin check is a smart, safe way to check for moles and early signs of cancer, often onset by sun exposure.
Whether you’re tan or pale now, you can tell if you’ve spent too much time in the sun by the quality of your skin. If it appears leathery and, as Schweiger describes it, “has a lack of elasticity,” then it’s time to dial back and be especially proactive with anti-aging regimens and SPF protection. “Tanning breaks down the collagen and elastin in the skin, which are the building blocks of youthful skin. Skin that has this ‘photo damage’ also displays signs of premature aging and presents with wrinkles, fine lines, and brown spots.” You can sometimes fix this with a nightly retinol application, while a consistent skin-care regimen (with lots of SPF, again) will prevent further wear.