What Is A Tan? & Is it ever healthy?

What Is A Tan? & Is it ever healthy?

You often hear the term “a healthy tan” or how you should “get a little colour”, but are you really healthier with a tan?

Firstly, let’s look at how tan is developed. A tan is formed when a person’s skin is exposed to the sun for an extended period of time. This can vary from person to person and it can come on directly, or after a burn depending on your skin phototype. UVA rays are the primary cause of tanning, and they’re also the primary cause of premature ageing, i.e. wrinkles.

A tan is the result of an increase of melanin, a natural pigment, in the body formed by melanocytes1. Melanin absorbs UV radiation, so excessive exposure to UV rays will cause the body to go into protection mode and produce more melanin, which in turn changes the colour of the skin1. By the time a tan develops the skin is already damaged and your risk of developing melanoma is increased.

The main cause of melanoma is UV exposure. “Melanocytes produce melanin to help protect the skin from ultraviolet radiation. When melanocyte cells aggregate together in the skin during childhood or adolescence they form a mole. Most moles are quite safe, however, sometimes the melanocytes in a mole begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. If they start to grow in an unregulated way, either expanding outwards or down into the lower layers of the skin, they can become a melanoma2.”

The Melanoma Institute Australia reports that 1 in 14 Australian men and 1 in 24 Australian women will be diagnosed with melanoma sometime in their life2.

Many people think that the negative effects of tanning won’t materialise until they are old, however, amongst young people aged 15-39, melanoma makes up 20% of all cancer cases making it the most common form of cancer in young people3.

Most people achieve a tan by lying in the sun, however, even though tanning beds have now been banned for commercial use in Australia there are still people using them. Tanning beds can emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun3. That’s not to say that sunbathing is a safer way to get a tan, exposure to any unnecessary UV radiation can result in skin damage. Research from Cancer Research UK found that “getting sunburnt, just once every 2 years, can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer5.”

If you were to ask someone why they tan they would likely say because they like the way it makes them look. Tanning may provide short term aesthetic benefits, but it will lead to premature ageing, including fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, and pigmentation down the line. Thankfully now there are multitudes of products to achieve tanned looking skin without the need to spend time in the sun.

So in answering the question of whether a tan is ever healthy, the answer is a definite No. Tanning can lead to an increased risk of developing skin cancer, premature ageing and uneven skin pigmentation.


  1. Brenner M, Hearing V. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. J. Photochem. Photobiol. 2007, 84(3):539-549.
  2. What is melanoma? [Internet] 2017. Available from: https://www.melanoma.org.au/understanding-melanoma/what-is-melanoma/
  3. Melanoma facts and statistics [Internet] 2017. Available from: https://www.melanoma.org.au/understanding-melanoma/what-is-melanoma/
  4. UVA & UVB [Internet] 2013 May 23. Available from: http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb
  5. How the sun and UV cause cancer [Internet] 2017. Available from: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/sun-uv-and-cancer/how-the-sun-and-uv-cause-cancer