The Truth About the Viral UV Index Tanning Trend

Getty / Gerry Cranham

The fascination with tanning goes way back. Once upon a time, people basted themselves in baby oil and used sun reflectors to achieve a deep tan; now, they’re using the UV index. It’s a new trend going around on TikTok that you may or may not have seen already, depending on what side of the app you’re on.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what started the UV index tanning trend, but it’s spreading fast. On TikTok, #UVIndex has 58.6M views and #UVIndexTanning has 20.8K views. The search results yield everything from people giving their “tips” for optimal results – like suggesting what UV index is good for tanning and which tanning oil to use – to progress shots while laying out.

It’s widely known that tanning causes skin damage and puts you at risk of skin cancer, yet some supporters of this new tanning phenomenon believe that utilizing the index can help you tan more “safely” – but is there any merit to this? We consulted a board-certified dermatologist to further explain.

What Is the UV Index, Anyway?

UV index tanning has people checking the weather app on their iPhones to see what the ultraviolet radiation will be for that day. For those unfamiliar with it, “the UV index measures the intensity of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun at a specific location,” Young McMahan, MD, of U.S. Dermatology Partners Waco, tells POPSUGAR. “It’s calculated using the exact location and elevation of that place, time of day, time of year, ground conditions, cloud cover, and state of the ozone layer in the atmosphere.” So, the UV index tells you how strong the sun’s rays are and how much of a risk it poses to your skin at any given time of day.

The World Health Organization UVI runs from 0, which is the lowest reading possible and only occurs when the sun is down, to 11, which is considered “extreme.” The sun doesn’t have to be clearly visible to produce a high UV rating – it can be a 9 on a cloudy day and a 4 when it appears to be a really sunny day.

What Happens When Your Skin Tans

If you look forward to getting a sun-kissed glow in the summertime, we have some bad news. There is no such thing as a “safe” tan, and you can still get bronzed if you’re wearing sunscreen. No matter which way you splice it, this is not good for your skin.

“When you get a tan, that is the result of sun damage from UVA rays – even without a burn,” says Dr. McMahan. UVA and UVB rays affect your skin in different ways, causing damage to its DNA in the process. “UVA rays are longer wavelengths compared to UVB, and exposure to UVA rays is linked with slightly tanner skin in the short-term and accelerated signs of skin aging like wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots in the long term. UVB results in a longer-term tan and is linked to pre-cancerous lesions and cancerous lesions, including melanoma.”

Wearing sunscreen certainly helps lower your risk of damage and cancer, but it doesn’t completely negate it. The same goes for tanning during a lower UV index, despite some claims on TikTok. “While tanning using sun protection or under a lower UV has a lower risk associated with skin cancer and aging, tanning of any kind is still harmful to the skin and could lead to dangerous outcomes long-term,” says Dr. McMahan.

Unfortunately, the threat of tanning far exceeds just a sunburn. “It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, yet many people underestimate how serious it can be,” she says, citing the statistic from the American Academy of Dermatology.

The bottom line: “The only way to get a tan without damaging skin cells is to use sunless tanning products, like spray tans or self-tanning lotions.” Luckily, there are a ton of great self-tanners on the market for you to choose from. And, if you really love the way tan lines look, you can use makeup to fake them.

How to Avoid Skin Damage From the Sun

The proper way to use the UV index is to monitor when to avoid the sun – rather than for tanning. “[It] peaks between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, so avoid being outside during those hours whenever possible,” says Dr. McMahan.

But let’s be realistic: that’s not always feasible – especially if you’re someone who enjoys being outdoors in the summertime. So, there are a few other best practices you can abide by. Number one is wearing sunscreen. “Studies have shown that regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent,” says Dr. McMahan. “I recommend choosing a sunblock that is broad-spectrum and has an SPF of at least 30.” Wear it all day, every day, and remember to reapply every couple of hours – most sunscreens suggest every 80 minutes. On top of that, get yourself some protective clothing like a wide-brim hat, and always sit in the shade as much as possible.

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