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Does Tanning Heal Acne - or Make it Worse?


I've been talking about sunscreen and skin cancer for so long that I feel like I'm going around in circles. But I don't have any reservations regarding the amount of time or emphasis I've placed on it, because as I always say, it's very important. It's important to be informed, and to be wise about our sun exposure.

In this blog post I talked about why I stopped tanning. In this blog post I discussed some of my favourite sunscreens for acne prone skin. And in this YouTube video I shared my skin cancer pathology results. As you can tell, sun protection is a cause very dear to me.

But sun protection should be a cause that is dear to all of us. After all, skin cancer is avoidable and the risks of sun exposure without sunscreen or sunblockers far outweigh the benefits of having "tanned skin" and any menial acne-related results we may temporarily experience from sun exposure, artificial or natural.

Some people believe that tanning beds and excessive sun exposure helps to clear acne. The American Academy of Dermatology, however, states that tanning beds have not been scientifically proven to decrease acne. Regardless of these official positions, people still perpetuate and recommend sun exposure to clear acne (even when I was tanning to "clear my acne" I was never so irresponsible as to recommend it to others).

Not to mention, many people also don’t actually realize that sun exposure, either outside or in a tanning bed, can make our acne WORSE!

That's right, the sun/tanning bed you love to "treat" your acne with, could actually be doing the exact opposite of what you hoped it would do.

Tanning may act in several ways to make it seem as though it's helping your acne:

1. Tanning covers up redness. The Nemours Foundation explains that a tan complexion only temporarily darkens the skin, covering the redness of acne for a brief period of time, but not actually healing the acne. You've likely noticed this, my pale folks - when we are pale (or when our skin is not baked in the sun) the redness seems so apparent, versus when we are "tanned". People with darker skin can also attest to this, that redness doesn't show through as much. This doesn't mean our skin is healthier or better off, just because we can't see the redness and irritation - it's still there! Simply speaking, when the skin is darker or tanned the acne is merely less apparent. This in and of itself is NOT a good reason to risk skin cancer, damage and premature aging. Hello, self-tanner, ever heard of it? Like this awesome vegan sunless tanner from Nature's Gate. Glowy skin without the skin cancer!

2. Tanning dries up the surface of your skin, making some blemishes fade away temporarily that are otherwise fed by the sebum. This is usually a very short-term solution, however, as this oil generally comes back two-fold and with a new composition that makes it even more hospitable to acne. No bueno.

3. There also may be a slight correlation with the diminished stress associated with the act of tanning which can improve acne in itself. People with seasonal mood disorders may especially benefit from light exposure outside of its actual effect on acne. But that doesn't give you reason to go bake in the sun, either. There are much safer ways, such as with blue light therapy which has also been shown to help seasonal mood disorders! Not to mention there's an added benefit of using blue light therapy instead of the sun or tanning beds for acne; they all utilize wavelengths of light to kill acne bacteria in the pores, but UV light therapy has fallen out of favour due to the risks associated with skin cancer. Nowadays, blue light therapy contains no UV rays and should not be confused with tanning booths or tanning lights.

Unfortunately the buck doesn't stop here. These skin curses disguised as blessings aren't all the sun does - there are curses not disguised at all, that you need to be aware of.

Tanning breaks down collagen, which is our skin's primary defense against wrinkles. Not to mention collagen degradation may also contribute to large pores. Nothing worse than skin sagging from our face in our thirties with Grand Canyon pores to add to the equation. Why exacerbate the aging process?!

Sun damage also causes our skin to thicken over time. Combined with peeling, which our skin does more so when tanned as it sheds the dead skin, it becomes more difficult for your skin to clear the pores of acne-causing bacteria and sebum. I can personally speak for this, myself, as my skin definitely grew thicker the more and more I tanned (a desperate attempt by my skin to protect itself). And unlike in social settings, growing thicker skin does not benefit us.

And, perhaps most importantly (at least for acne), the damage caused by UV radiation to our skin and sebum is one potential trigger that could kick off the acne formation process. Following UV exposure, squalene (a part of our natural sebum composition) undergoes photodegradation. The squalene is oxidized, allowing the squalene peroxide to exert harmful effects. Squalene peroxide has been demonstrated to be comedogenic. Which is one of the biggest reasons that I recommend everyone with acne to use topical antioxidants as well as sunscreen! Protecting sebum against oxidative damage is one of the keys to preventing acne and not allowing the acne formation process to even begin.

Not to mention, instead of decreasing acne, the use of tanning beds may actually cause acne where acne wasn't before. Experts at the Johns Hopkins University state that tanning salons are a place where bacteria grows. This is because so many different people use the booths each day and even the best salons can sometimes miss spots, or in a rush between clients may do a sub-par job of cleaning. The bacteria in tanning booths may cause acne if it comes in contact with the skin and may even lead to infections. It may not be acne on your face, but on your back or bum, or anywhere that touches a bed. And there's nothing more annoying than trying to enjoy your summer with acne on your shoulders just because you wanted to use that tanning bed!

The bottom line is this: there are many other effective treatments for acne that are not associated with the risks of premature aging and skin cancer. Treating acne with tanning is not recommended, and not only that, it's also just not very wise.

Some people will argue vehemently that the only thing that clears their skin is tanning or sun exposure - these are generally people a lot like the old me: people who tanned constantly, were causing constant damage to their skin, and were never allowing their skin a "break" from the UV damage that would mask the acne. So, yes, in some ways the short answer to the question "Does tanning heal acne?" is yes, but in all the ways that matter, the answer is a resounding NO. The goal for our skin should always be with the end game in mind - we want beautiful skin for life, not just the illusion of beautiful skin for right now. We want healthy skin for life, not just the illusion of healthy skin for right now. The choices that you make for your skin TODAY will affect your skin for the rest of your life, so make good ones.


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