Getting a Safe Summertime Glow

Summer is quickly approaching, and with it comes time to bare the pale parts that have been covered all winter long.

While some will opt for a quick session in a tanning bed, many more are turning to sunless tanning creams to get that attractive golden glow.

These lotions offer a quick tanning fix without the risks of skin cancer-causing UV rays. But, some experts are concerned they may also offer users a false sense of security.

"Self-tanners are not really a tan," says Dr. James Spencer, professor of clinical dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "It only gives the protection of about an SPF 2 or 3….you still need to wear your sunscreen."

Sunless and Safe?

A tan is what happens when your skin produces melanin, a protein that acts to protect the skin from harmful sunlight.

Those who have lighter skin have less melanin than those with naturally dark skin. When fair skinned people turn bronze, it's a sign of damage caused by the sun's UV rays.

Getting your glow from a cream or lotion designed to make the skin appear darker is one way to bypass exposure to these rays. Sunless tanners, or self-tanners, carry a food coloring called dihydroxyacetone, which works to pigment the skin.

"Dying yourself with food coloring is a perfectly safe thing to do," says Spencer, adding that the formulas have come a long way since the streaky orange stigma.

However, some users may think this self-made tan offers the same amount of protection as a base tan would, and forgo using additional sunscreen.

"Using a self-tanner will not stop you from sunburning," says Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University.

"If you want to be tan," he adds, "the safest way is with a self tanner, but you must also use protection." He recommends using an SPF of 30 or higher.

Tanning Trends

Tan skin has been a sign of beauty from as far back as the 1920's, created by the allure of Hollywood glamour. Since then, not much has changed.

Stars and starlets still flaunt bronze skin year round, perhaps adding fuel to the fire that is a growing trend of young women addicted to tanning salons.

"We see 40 percent of 17-year old women in tanning salons each year," says Rigel, adding that skin cancer rates, once seen to plateau, are now rising. The increase, however, is being seen in a much younger, female demographic.

"Skin cancer rates are now rising in women in their 20's and 30's," Rigel says. What could be a reflection of the popularity of tanning salons which are frequented more often by women then men.

The American Cancer Society figures nearly 1 million Americans are diagnosed with sun-related skin cancer each year, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States.

Now, even celebrities are catching on. Almost all of them use self-tanners or spray tan options.

Rigel is hopeful that people will get the message, and protect themselves.

"All it takes is a little common sense -- use a hat and sunscreen. Protection never hurts," he says.