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Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin its tanned appearance. Melanin is produced by melanocytes, cells that are found in the inner layer of skin called the dermis. The melanocytes' production of melanin is triggered by exposure to ultraviolet light. Too much exposure to ultraviolet light by the dermis could result in long-term skin damage.
That's where the melanin comes in. Gradual exposure to ultraviolet light results in progressive production of melanin. The melanin then acts as a filter by absorbing some of the ultraviolet light and preventing it from reaching the dermis. This prevents burning and longer-term skin damage that may not be apparent until years later.
Having a base tan helps the skin to prevent burning from additional exposure to the sun or UV rays. A good way to develop a base tan is to use an indoor tanning bed on a gradual exposure schedule.