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Medicine or Malarkey: Does a Base Tan Prevent Sunburn?

The sun is shining, and the pool, lake, or ocean is calling. It’s time to enjoy some fun in the sun! But how can you prepare your skin for the sun’s rays? Popular advice among sun worshippers is to get a “base tan.” The idea is that building up a little color before heading outdoors will help prevent sunburn during a longer day in the sun. Unfortunately, this is simply a myth. While a little color might be appealing, it does not protect you from overexposure to the sun, which can lead to sunburn, wrinkles and skin cancer. Even the light from tanning booths can cause skin damage in the same way that overexposure to real sunlight can. So what can you do to prepare for a day at the pool or lake?

The answer is pretty simple: Wear sunscreen, and reapply it generously and often. Look for a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection. This means that it blocks both types of UV light—UVA (rays that prematurely age and wrinkle your skin) and UVB (rays that burn your skin). Overexposure to either type can lead to skin cancer, so it’s important to avoid both. Any part of your body, including your earlobes, scalp and lips, can burn — so be sure to pay attention to these often-overlooked areas. Also, it’s important to know that you can burn even on cloudy days, so never skip the sunscreen!

Other helpful ways to avoid sun exposure include limiting how long you are in the sun during peak hours (typically 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and wearing protective clothing like a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a wide-brimmed hat.

If you do happen to get a sunburn, you can usually treat your symptoms at home. Some helpful home treatments include:

  • Cool compresses
  • Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
  • Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Aloe vera gel or lotion
  • Hydration—drinking plenty of fluids

You may need to consult with a medical professional for sunburn treatment if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Severe sunburn—with blisters—covering a large portion of your body
  • Sunburn accompanied by a high fever or severe pain
  • A skin infection which developed from scratching your sunburned skin
  • Severe sunburn that doesn’t begin to improve within a few days

Stay safe in the sun this summer!