By Abragail Kappel for The Real College Guide

You can’t wait to hit the beach or spend time hanging poolside — and you want to be beautifully bronzed. Screeeeech … put on the brakes! Before you decide to bake in the quad or plunk down bucks on a tanning salon membership, know the perils of basking in ultraviolet (UV) rays. We outline the dangers of tanning, plus give you the lowdown on self-tanning and safe sun-worshiping so you can get the best tan on campus. Pass the SPF, please.

Safe Tan Fact No. 1: Sunshine can be lethal.
“A tan is your body’s way of trying to protect itself from damaging UV radiation,” says Lisa Quale, health educator at the Arizona Skin Cancer Institute. “So, basically, tan skin means you’re doing something bad to your body. The UV radiation that causes tan skin is considered a carcinogen.”

“I don’t think about the risks,” says Shelby Blanco, a University of Arizona freshman who loves to soak up the sun. “I live in Arizona so why not go outside? It’s relaxing and it makes you look good.”

Like Blanco, many college students’ desire to get that summer glow trumps the potential dangers of tanning. But let’s be blunt: UV exposure is the most common cause of skin cancer, and skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. And, yes, skin cancer can kill you. It can also be disfiguring. Not attractive!

Think it won’t happen to you? Maybe not. But according to The Skin Cancer Foundation, these are the brutal facts:

  • One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.
  • Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.
  • Skin cancer can and does develop in those of African American, Asian, Hispanic and Indian descent — thought less often than Caucasians.

Safe Tan Fact No. 2: Tanning beds are no better.
It’s a complete myth that tanning beds are a “safe” way to tan, even if you just plan to get a “base tan.” UV radiation from tanning beds and indoor tanning booths is every bit as bad as the sun’s rays. Many salons mislead the public with claims that skin cancer is caused only by sunburn and that having a “controlled” tan helps prevent it. Not true!

Tanning beds damage skin cells just as the sun’s rays do. By exposing yourself to the UV lights in a salon bed or booth, you are still harming your skin and therefore putting yourself at risk for cancer.

Safe Tan Fact No. 3: Sunscreen is your friend.
When outdoors, even on a cloudy or breezy day, it’s essential to use sunscreen. “Choose a sunscreen that claims to be ‘water resistant’ with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher,” advises Quale.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends “broad spectrum” products that protect against both types of harmful rays, UVA and UVB. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied often, especially after swimming or sweating, because even if a product offers water resistance, it might wear off.

There are other ways to further protect yourself (but keep in mind that you still need sunscreen):

  • Sitting in a shaded area, such as under an umbrella, pavilion or tree, offers some additional protection — but the sun’s rays reflect off sand, water and concrete and still reach the skin directly.
  • Long sleeves, pants, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses also help. But again, don’t depend entirely on these as the sun’s rays can penetrate certain materials.
  • Windows block a portion of the sun’s rays but not all. You need sunscreen even if you’re indoors or in a car with the windows up.
  • The sun is less dangerous in early morning or late afternoon, says Quale. While never completely safe, it is at its most damaging point during midday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Safe Tan Fact No. 4: Spray tans rock!
If you must head to the tanning salon, ask for a session in the spray tan booth instead of your usual 10-minute bake in the bed. “I absolutely prefer self-tanners over tanning beds,” says Cassie Weinman, a junior at AZU. “When I was a freshman in college, my mom was diagnosed with melanoma [the most serious form of many different types of skin cancer]. I decided it wasn’t worth risking it to be tan.”

Adds Weinman: “If I need to get a quick tan, I’ll do a spray tan. It lasts two weeks, and I love it. I go every other week during the summer.” Over-the-counter self-tanning products work well between spray-booth sessions or on their own. Spray tans, bronzers and self-tanning lotions dye the top layers of skin without any damaging effects.

“These products are the only thing I ever recommend to people who want to look tan,” says Quale. “Just have fun going to the drugstore or department store, and try different brands of gradual self-tanners, brush-on minerals or bronzing lotions until you find the product that works for you. The only safe tan is a fake tan.”