Does Sunscreen Prevent Tanning?
For some people, the desire for that tawny glow from a tan can be hard to resist, even if they know the risks of tanning. But does sunscreen prevent tanning altogether, or can you tan with sunscreen? And can you wear sunscreen for UV protection and still get a “healthy” tan?
“Sunscreen is effective at preventing tans in most cases, but only if you use it properly,” said Annie Gonzalez, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology. “If you do get a tan, it means your skin has suffered skin damage. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. The UV rays that contribute to wrinkles and skin cancer are also what cause the skin to tan.”
What is a tan, really?
Many people associate tanned skin with attractiveness and good health, but here’s what happens when you spend time in the sun without wearing protective clothing or sunscreen. First, the UV rays damage the outer layer of skin. To try to protect itself from further damage, the skin produces more melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. The extra melanin is what creates a tan.
Meanwhile, the UVA radiation that causes tans speeds skin aging — think wrinkles, dark spots and a leathery texture. Both UVA radiation and UVB radiation, which is the main cause of sunburn, increase the risk of developing skin cancer, in part by damaging the DNA in skin cells.
Is there a safe way to tan?
The bottom line: No tan is safe. This includes a base tan, which may make you burn a little slower but still creates skin damage, as well as tans from a tanning bed, which are no safer than outdoor tans.
If you’re tanning to look better, remember this: “The more often you tan, the greater the damage to the collagen and elastin that keeps skin looking supple and youthful,” said Dr. Gonzalez.
How to avoid an accidental tan
If you’re not trying to get tan but you do anyway, it’s probably a sign you’re spending too much time in the sun during peak hours and not using sun protection, including sunscreen, correctly. Sunscreen mistakes include:
- Applying too little sunscreen. To cover the exposed areas of your body, you should use at least an ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass (or two tablespoons). Most people use about 25% to 50% of that amount.
- Forgetting to re-apply. Protection from one application of sunscreen doesn’t last all day. Reapply every two hours when you’re outside or immediately after you swim or sweat.
- Using old sunscreen. Sunscreen degrades over time. If your sunscreen is expired or you can’t remember how long you’ve had it, throw it out. To help prevent degradation, keep it out of direct sunlight, and don’t leave it in your hot car.
- Choosing a low-SPF sunscreen. For the most effective protection, choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater, and make sure the label includes the words “broad spectrum,” which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Get glowing with a self-tanner
If you like how you look with a tan, get it from a bottle instead of the sun. The better self-tanners have come a long way since the early versions that turned people orange.
Finding the best self-tanner can take some trial and error. Some have an off-putting smell, and yes, some still manage to make you look more orange than tan. If you aren’t sure where to start, try one of these high-rated picks.
- Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer
- L’Oréal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water Mousse
- Alba Botanica Sunless Tanner
- Coola Sunless Tan Firming Lotion
- Tan-Luxe The Water Hydrating Self-Tan Water
- Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water
For a convincing sun-kissed look, follow the instructions carefully. Exfoliate and moisturize your skin in advance to avoid unevenness, which screams “fake tan.” When you’re ready to apply the self-tanner, make sure your skin is dry (no moisturizer). That said, you might want to smooth a little moisturizer into areas that are prone to developing self-tanner stains, including the elbows, knees and heels.
Medically reviewed by Annie Gonzalez, MD.
Written by Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Water’s Edge Dermatology, Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.