Does a person’s skin type affect how long they can be exposed to ultraviolet rays before experiencing skin damage? Absolutely. The European Sunlight Association states that ‘the amount of UV exposure needed to acquire a tan varies according to your skin type’. But why? It’s all to do with the effect that UV exposure has on internal processes.

How Does Tanning Work?

When the skin is exposed to UV rays - either from the sun, or from a sunbed - it can damage the outer layer of the skin known as the epidermis. In an effort to protect the skin, the body naturally produces more melanin, which is the pigment that gives skin its colour. Melanin absorbs the UV radiation, resulting in less damage to the epidermis.

Understanding Skin Types

People who naturally produce more melanin are better protected from UV rays. On the other end of the scale, those with lower melanin levels are more likely to burn in the sun.

In 1975, American dermatologist Thomas B. Fitzpatrick was the first to categorise people with varying levels of melanin into different groups, inventing the Fitzpatrick Skin Phototype classification system that identified six distinct skin types across the world:

Type I: Skin is typically very pale and burns easily, but does not tan

Type II: Skin is pale and burns easily, but can develop a light tan over time

Type III: Skin is fair but not pale, and may tan following initial burning

Type IV: Skin is olive or light brown in colour, and tans easily after burning

Type V: Skin is brown and tans very easily, although mild burning may still occur

Type VI: Skin is black and well protected, it never burns but can tan darker

The World Health Organization (WHO) took the Fitzpatrick system and went one step further, dividing the six skin types into three sub-categories. According to WHO, types I and II are ‘melano compromised’, and must try to prevent exposure to UV radiation. Types III and IV are ‘melano competent’ and can withstand short periods of exposure, while types V and VI are ‘melano protected’ and can safely spend longer in the sun.

How Long Should Sunbeds be Used For?

It is not recommended that those with Skin type I use a sunbed for any length of time as this type typically does not tan. Other skin types may use a sunbed for limited periods:

Type II: 3 minute sessions for 3 days, building up to 6 minutes by day 6

Type III & IV: 4 minute sessions for 3 days, building up to 8 minutes by day 6

Type V & VI: 5 minute sessions for 3 days, building up to 10 minutes by day 6

The initial shorter sessions allow for the body to ramp up melanin production to produce a mild base tan than can help to prevent skin damage. Once this base tan has been established - typically by day 3 - it may be possible to double exposure time by day 6.

The most important thing to understand is that longer sessions do not result in a better tan. Instead, it is likely that a long session could cause the skin to burn, and result in long term damage that may not become apparent for a number of years. Instead, it is much better to have regular short sessions to develop a safe, healthy, and glowing tan.