Paranamir/ShutterstockAh, that golden glow of a suntan. It makes us look and feel more attractive, but suntanning comes at a hefty price: irreversible damage to your skin. Even if you manage to avoid burning, you’re still in for premature wrinkling, sagging, and blotching, and you’re significantly raising your risk of skin cancer, including the deadly kind, melanoma. If only there were a hack of sorts for sunbathing—some way to get that beautiful bronzed look without the problems associated with sun exposure.
Well there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that if you’ve got a smartphone, you can download any number of apps that purport to make a science out of how long and under which circumstances you can bask safely in the sun while minimizing the damage to your skin. We’ll get to them just as soon as we let you in on the bad news, which is that we polled dermatologists from all over the country, and they agreed unanimously: There’s simply no such thing as a safe suntan. We may perceive it as attractive, but a suntan is nothing more than “your body’s defense system against the sun, and more specifically, the UV radiation that the sun emits,” according to Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Medical Director of Minnesota’s Crutchfield Dermatology.
UV radiation, commonly known as “UV rays,” represent about 10 percent of the total light emitted from the sun, according to Fraye L. Frey, MD, a board certified dermatologist located in West Nyack, New York, and can be further broken down as follows:
- UVC: These rays gets filtered out by the earth’s ozone layer (and are therefore not of immediate concern)
- UVB: These rays cause sunburns but are also a natural source of vitamin D, which is crucial to good health (although Dr. Crutchfield points out that Vitamin D can be sourced naturally from tuna, salmon, eggs, cheese, D-fortified foods, and D vitamin supplements)
- UVA: These rays penetrate the skin deeply, can fracture DNA, and are associated with premature skin aging, dark patches, wrinkles and skin cancer
“The intensity of UV light can be measured with a variety of instruments that are commercially available,” says Dr. Frey. Specifically, what is measured is the amount of UV radiation in any given locale at any given time, according to Jerome Potozkin, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Danville, California. That measurement is placed on an international index scale known as UVI, and forms the basis for the smartphone apps that purport to help you strategize your sunbathing. “The scale goes from 0 to 10, with the high number meaning the greater risk of sunburn from UV exposure,” adds Carolyn M. Kassabian, MD, a board licensed dermatologist with the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California. “When the UVI is 6, it’s twice as easy to burn than if the UVI were 3.”
So what does that mean in terms of how long you can stay in the sun on any given day and with what level of protection? These smartphone apps were designed to crunch the numbers for you:
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- iTanSmart uses your phone’s GPS to determine your location, space satellites to measure the UVI in your location, and information that you input about yourself and your environment to tell you exactly how long you can be in the sun without burning. Except for the GPS and the space satellites, all of the information is self-reported, so you’ll need to be honest when inputting your eye color, hair color, tendency to burn, blister, tan, or freckle. You’ll also need to describe where you are (beach? mountain? city?) admit your goal (avoid sunburn versus get a savage tan). If you’re looking to use iTanSmart to develop a tan, you’ll have to pay an extra fee of $1.99, and whether it’s worth it will depend upon many factors, not the least of which is whether you’re prepared to accept the damage you’re doing to your skin in the process (which iTanSmart is fully transparent about reminding you).
- SunZapp provides the same functions as iTanSmart but also assesses the sun protection you are getting from the clothes you tell the app you’re wearing. The results it spits out after you answer all its questions and does its UVI reading are easy to parse. In addition, even without all the warnings that iTanSmart provides, SunZapp’s vibe seems to lean more toward protecting your skin from the sun and away from getting tan.
- My Tan Expert does essentially what iTanSmart and Sunzapp do, but slightly more complicated. MyTanExpert not only asks the usual battery of questions about your skin, hair, and eyes, but it also asks you to take a photo of your skin beside a white napkin. You provide the white napkin, and getting your skin and the napkin to fit into their respective outlines while taking the photo yourself, one-handed, is no easy task. Once you complete it, however, it’s difficult to understand what the recommendations mean. For example, it tells me, a very pale, freckly, redheaded, blue-eyed person that my skin can take “another 90 percent of the daily dose of ultraviolet radiation.” What?
It seems, however, that with a minimal understanding of UV rays, the following apps, which do little more than provide a UVI reading and a short and simple sun-protection recommendation, could also help you plan a sun-safe strategy every day:
- UV Meter tells you the UVI at your current location and offers practical recommendations for sun protection (including not only sunscreen but also protective clothing) as well predictions on how long it will take before you get sunburned.
- The EPA’s SunWise UV Index also tells you the UVI at your current location, offers practical recommendations for sun protection (including not only sunscreen but also protective clothing), including the recommendation to “seek shade.” Plus, the app was designed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which is an excellent source of hard-hitting information about the current state of the ozone layer, which may have an impact on the way our skin is affected by UVCs.
- Ultraviolet UV Index very simply and quite beautifully shows the current UVI for your locale as well as any other location in the world. In addition, it provides simple, easy-to-understand instructions on how to expose yourself to that day’s rays as safely as possible.
- QSun has functions similar to those described for these other apps, but it adds further value by making sunscreen recommendations, including using your own weight and height to tell you exactly how much sunscreen to apply in order to maximize the sunscreen’s effectiveness.
Regardless of the UVI, Dr. Kassabian tells her patients to apply sunscreen with an SPF of between 30 and 50 every single day. “This gets them in the habit of applying regularly, and they are less likely to forget and consequently, less likely to burn.” She also recommends practicing sun avoidance measures, such as wearing a hat and a long-sleeved shirt, and seeking shade whenever possible. These are the sunscreens dermatologists use on themselves.
Dr. Crutchfield adds that your SPF of 30 or higher should provide not only UVB protection, but also broad spectrum protection so that it blocks the UVA rays as well. “Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure,” he advises, “and reapply every one to two hours, and more often if perspiring or swimming.”
You can still sport a bronzed look this summer if you want—if you get it from a bottle. As Dr. Potozkin says, “The only safe tan is one involving the application of self-tanner.”