By now, most of us are pretty well-versed on the perils of sun overexposure. The sun can age your skin, wrinkling and sagging what was once smooth and taut. And overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays puts you at high risk of skin cancer, and those with fair skin are especially vulnerable.

While most people are smart about applying high SPF sunscreens (at least SPF 15 or higher) and taking to the shade, many feel the pressure to live up to a golden standard set by celebrities. You see them in the magazines with their teeny bathing suits and all-over tans. While it's best to protect yourself from the sun and accept your natural skin colour, celebrity standards compel people to spend millions each year on self-tanning solutions, spray-on salon tans, and sessions on sunbeds. Is a "healthy tan" still a myth, or could one of these sunless options give you a safer glow?

The bottle: self-tanning lotions

  • Do you know what goes into that glow? Most self-tanning lotions contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA, a colourless sugar, interacts with the dead cells on the top layer of your skin and causes a temporary change in colour.
  • Should you go for the glow? If you really want a tan, it seems that self-tanning lotions offer a safe alternative to the sun. Some people may experience irritations or allergies, but as long as you use self-tanners properly, the health risks are minimal.

The mist: salon spray-on and airbrush tans

  • Do you know what goes into this glow? Many tanning parlours now offer spray-on tans. Some varieties get airbrushed onto your skin, while others require you to step into a chamber where you're then sprayed by bursts of tanning mist. Wondering what that mist is made of? Like most self-tanning lotions, spray-on and airbrush tans contain DHA as their active ingredient.
  • Should you go for the glow? Spray-on and airbrushed tans pose about the same risks as self-tanning solutions. That is, possible irritation or allergic reactions may occur when the tanning solution is applied to your skin. Safe, reputable salons should offer you protection to cover your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent the mist from being inhaled or drifting into sensitive mucous membranes.

The bed: tanning booths and sunbeds

  • Do you know what goes into that glow? The clam-shaped tanning beds found in many salons and spas pump out UV rays on par with the sun. Like the sun, these rays trigger melanin production in your skin. Melanin gives your skin its colour.
  • Should you go for the glow? Stretching out in a tanning bed exposes your skin to as much potential damage as lounging beneath the sun. The new melanin triggered by the UV radiation from the tanning bed forces the skin to darken. This process can damage the DNA of the cells and put you at higher risk of skin cancer. In the privacy of a tanning bed, people are more likely to go for that all-over tan and bare more of their skin to this intense UV radiation.
    The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that tanning salons post large, clear warnings of these dangers and require their customers to sign consent forms Avoid tanning beds or else limit your exposure. If you have fair skin or a family history of skin cancer, stay away from tanning beds all together.

The glow no-no's

Tanning pills. When ingested, the so-called tanning pill releases a pigment into the body that gets absorbed into the skin and into internal organs. Banned in the US but still available in some places, tanning pills have been linked to hepatitis and yellow deposits in the eyes.

The "base tan" myth. It's a refrain often overheard in tanning salons: "I'm going on vacation, so I need to get a base tan." A base tan offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of, at best, 2 to 4 and provides no defence against skin cancer.

Underage tanning. Skin protection should be the priority for parents with babies, kids, and even teenagers. Tanning beds emit too much UV risk and should not be used by anyone under the age of 18. And though sunless tanning lotions with DHA are deemed safe for topical use, they may irritate youthful skin. As with any skincare products, sunless tanners should be kept out of the reach of very young children.

DIY sunbeds. Some spas, salons, resorts, and other places offer do-it-yourself (DIY), self-service tanning beds. The risk here is that without a trained professional to supervise tanning sessions, people may overdo it by staying too long under UV rays that are too intense.

Foregoing sunscreen. Unless it's specified as a high SPF product, sunless tanning solutions don't offer protection from UV sun damage.

Amy Toffelmire