We all know that the sun shines differently in different parts of the world, and I’m sure most of us have heard of the UV index. But what’s the UV index got to do with tanning? How do you tan without burning and can the UV index help you do it?
What is the UV index? And how should you use it?
Understanding what the UV index represents is crucial before we can dig into what UV index is best for tanning. It might come as a surprise that you can’t actually ‘feel’ UV light. What you feel as heat when relaxing on a sandy white beach with margaritas in hand is actually another kind of light known as infrared. Which is why it’s all too easy to get a sunburn or UV damage to your skin without even knowing it. A lot of factors can influence the impacts of UV on our skin. Your location, altitude, proximity to reflective surfaces like water or snow, all affect the intensity of UV light reaching your skin.
In 1995 a team of scientists sat down in an attempt to save the world from skin cancer[i] and they devised a system to help regular folks like us make better sense of the complicated science of UV light and its effect on the skin. What they came back with what we now know as the UV index. Its measuring system, a ruler of sorts, and it categorizes the range of UV light that reaches us here on earth by intensity. Ultimately, the UV index was designed as a tool to help us make better decisions about how we spend our time in/or out of the sun.
The UV Index
The UV index is actually pretty simple. Imagine the UV index like a ruler; You have small UV numbers on one side and exponentially larger ones on the opposite side. This UV ruler numbers range from 1 to 11+. These numbers also get a rating – low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme.
Can you tan with a UV index of 1?
The lowest UV index possible during daylight hours is 1. In fact, both UV ratings of 1 and 2 are considered ‘low’ exposure. The US Environmental Protection Agency tells us at this strength of UV light there is ‘No protection needed. You can safely stay outside using minimal sun protection’[ii] – which seems a little contradictory. No protection needed, but also minimal sun protection recommended? It’s safe to assume that they are covering their backs here. While getting sunburn in UV 1 or 2 conditions is extremely unlikely, it’s still not impossible.
So can you tan with a UV index of 1 or 2? Probably, but it would take a while.
What UV index is best for tanning?
Your skin needs both UVA and UVB light to tan. That’s because UVA light darkens the pigment cells already inside your skin[iii] vs. UVB light which causes your skin to make more pigment cells[iv]. So how do you decide what is a good UV index for tanning?
If your aim is to tan safe, we recommend only tanning during moderate UV conditions*
*This is a general recommendation and varies depending on your location, altitude, and skin tone. Moderate includes UV index ranges from an index of 3 to 5, vs. high which is 6-7, very high which is 8-10 and extreme which is 11+.
The higher your UV index is, the faster your skin can burn, so it’s important to bear in mind how long you plan on staying outside in order to minimize risk and damage to your skin. The best thing you can do is take advantage of your skin’s natural protective mechanisms by supporting the tanning process with a tan accelerating body lotion like Base Tan. That way, your skin has everything it needs to rapidly produce more melanin, even if you are trying to tan with low UV.
If you plan on spending an extended period of time outdoors, playing it safe is always your best option. For this, we recommend Tan Smart, a broad-spectrum SPF 20 with the same melanin boosting active as our signature Base Tan product, but with added sun protection. Both products are part of our signature 3-step sun care system designed to help tan faster, safer, and with less time in the sun.