If you're a sun worshiper, you may wonder if it's OK to keep tanning while you're pregnant. Tanning can't be endorsed at any time.

Many dermatologists and public health officials caution that there's no such thing as a safe or healthy tan. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, tanning beds or sunlamps may cause skin cancer. It can also have a damaging effect on the connective tissues and can lead to premature aging of the skin, giving it a wrinkled, leathery appearance. Most skin cancers are clearly related to UV exposure, including some that cause premature death for thousands every year.

The mask of pregnancy — skin darkening on the face — is made worse by exposure to sunlight and tanning beds (see also Mask of pregnancy).

No controlled studies have examined the direct effects of tanning, tanning beds or self-tanning lotions on pregnant women. Although you won't get overheated on a tanning bed, you still have the other risks associated with UV radiation. As for self-tanning creams and lotions, the chemical that produces the tan, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), hasn't been studied in pregnant women. No evidence indicates that self-tanners are harmful, but there's no proof that they're safe, either.

Exposure to sunlight does provide some important benefits, such as increased vitamin D production and a sense of well-being. Sunlight can also affect mental health. There is good evidence that sunshine improves the mood of many healthy people and those suffering with disease. Remember, however, only a small amount of sunlight is needed for the body to manufacture vitamin D — much less sun exposure than it takes to get a suntan.

■ Tips for avoiding sun damage

• When you're outdoors, always wear a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater, and reapply it often when you're outside for longer periods or when you're swimming. Remember that some of the sun's UV rays also reach your skin on cloudy or overcast days.

• Plan your outdoor activities to avoid the sun's strongest rays in the middle of the day. As a general rule, be particularly cautious between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

• Reduce your sun exposure by wearing a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face and long-sleeved shirts and pants.

• Wear sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV protection.

• Seek shade, such as at outdoor cafes with umbrellas or under covered porches.

• Drink enough water, and make sure you don't get overheated.

• If you're determined to use a self-tanning lotion, check with your health care provider first. And remember that self-tanners don't provide protection from UV rays.

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