Getting that glowing tan during the summer months goes hand in hand with smart sun exposure.

When the American Academy of Dermatology conducted an online survey of adults nationwide, it revealed that nearly 58 percent of respondents from ages 1829 thought people looked more attractive when tan. Surprisingly, 25 percent were unsure if sun exposure could cause wrinkles.

Myth vs. reality

There are many misconceptions circulating about tanning. Some people think that getting a little bit of color isn’t harmful, but remember that sun damage is cumulative, and can lead to premature aging of the skin and even skin cancer. An additional misconception is that it is normal to become tan while wearing sun block. If you get a tan while wearing sun block, you aren’t using it correctly.

Overexposure and aging of skin

How can suntanning damage your skin? UVA/UVB rays are directly involved in the breakdown of collagen proteins that are responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of skin. This causes wrinkles and volume loss. The breakdown of elastin, another protein, leads to sagginess. Happily, this is reversible to a certain degree thanks to scientific advancements in skin care and technology. There is evidence that retinol and topical vitamin C applications may result in a slight reversal of sun damage, further improving pigment damage and skin laxity. And there are a variety of laser treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that can gently resurface the skin, reduce wrinkles and sun damage, and restore tightness to sagging skin.

Overexposure and skin cancer

Too much exposure to the sun can be dangerous. UVA/UVB rays are a form of radiation, which damage the DNA of skin cells. When the DNA of keratinocyctes are damaged, this results in basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. When the DNA of melanocytes is damaged, you can develop melanoma.

How to avoid overexposure

Always apply an SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays) daily, or every two hours if you are going to be exposed to the sun for a lengthy amount of time. The FDA has plans to mainstream the SPF ratings of sunscreens, as SPFs that are higher than 30 may be misleading. Avoid peak hours (between noon and 3 p.m.) or use umbrellas, stay in the shade and wear protective clothing if you are going to be outdoors during this period.

The safest way to tan

Self-tanning products are the safest way to get that bit of color or deep tan you want, and there are numerous products from which to choose. Many tanning salons also offer spray-on self-tanners for a more even application. Just remember that self-tanners do not provide UVA/UVB protection, so you must still apply an SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen on top of that perfect tan.

Cameron K. Rokhsar, M.D., F.A.A.D., F.A.A.C.S., is a board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained MOHS Micrographic surgeon and laser/cosmetic surgeon in private practice in Manhattan and Long Island, N.Y. Dr. Rokhsar is also an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He is a frequent lecturer on both a national and international scale and has been extensively published in several major medical textbooks.