03 December 2009

Tanning and burning: FAQs

What does a suntan indicate? Why does the skin tan when exposed to the sun? Get the answers to these questions.


You might have heard the quote, "There's no such thing as a healthy tan". What do you need to know in order to protect yourself against skin cancer? We give you the lowdown on tanning and burning with these frequently asked questions.

Q: What does a suntan indicate? Why does the skin tan when exposed to the sun?

A: The penetration of UV rays to the skin's inner layer results in the production of more melanin. That melanin eventually moves toward the outer layers of the skin and becomes visible as a tan.

A suntan is not an indicator of good health. Some physicians consider the skin's tanning a response to injury because it appears after the sun's UV rays have killed some cells and damaged others.

Q: Not everyone burns or tans in the same manner. Are there ways to classify different skin types?

A: Whether individuals burn or tan depends on a number of factors, including their skin type, the time of year, and the amount of sun exposure they have received recently. The skin's susceptibility to burning can be classified on a scale as outlined in the following table:

Skin's susceptibility to burning
Skin Type Tanning and sunburning history
I Always burns, never tans, sensitive to sun exposure
II Burns easily, tans minimally
III Burns moderately, tans gradually to light brown
IV Burns minimally, always tans well to moderately brown
V Rarely burns, tans profusely to dark
VI Never burns, deeply pigmented, least sensitive

Though everyone is at risk for damage as a result of excessive sun exposure, people with skin types I and II are at the highest risk.

Read more: Know your skin cm x cm

(Information supplied by the Cancer Association of South Africa,


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Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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