Ahh, good ole sunscreen. Your parents likely slathered it on you when you were a little kid.
Or, as you got older, they nagged you to always apply it when you went out in the sun.
Now, in adulthood, you’re the one responsible for being on sunscreen duty, and hopefully you’re applying it all the time. Nonetheless, you might be wondering: Does sunscreen prevent tanning?
Sure, nobody wants a gnarly sunburn, but lots of us like to have a nice bronze tan when we spend time outdoors in the summer or on a vacation. So, can you tan with sunscreen? We’re fairly sure that absolutely no medical professional would recommend forgoing this important lotion in hopes of getting a tan, so what’s a sun-lover to do?
Why is Sunscreen So Important?
Your parents weren’t wrong when acting as the sunblock police when you were younger. Although the sun on your skin can feel absolutely amazing, it’s also pretty dangerous, and can cause long-lasting negative effects that can last well beyond when a sunburn or tan fades away.
For example, sun exposure can result in premature aging, wrinkles, skin discoloration by way of “sunspots” and skin cancer, which can be deadly. Wearing sunscreen can help reduce your risk of all of these issues.
When we get tan, it’s actually our body’s way of trying to protect itself from the sun.
“[A tan is] our skin trying to erect a shield! Our skin is pumping out melanin and trying its best to protect the underlying DNA from UVL [ultraviolet light] damage,” said Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, Toronto-based dermatologist.
Within the UV light, there are two different harmful types: Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB).
UVA rays are the rays associated with premature aging (the A in UVA), and UVB rays are the ones associated with sunburns (the B in UVB is for burn), according to Dr. Kautilya Shaurya of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. Sunscreen contains UV filters that reduce the amount of UV rays reaching your skin’s surface.
Does Sunscreen Prevent You From Tanning?
Let’s dive a little deeper into how sunscreen actually works. These aforementioned molecules that reduce the amount of harmful rays that reach the skin’s surface can work in two ways: either absorbing or reflecting them.
“Some of these molecules are physical reflectors of UV rays, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, while others help to absorb UV before it damages your skin, such as avobenzone and octisalate,” Shaurya said. “A broad spectrum sunscreen contains both types of molecules and will protect your skin from both types of UVA and UVB rays.”
For this reason, a broad-spectrum sunscreen will provide you with the highest sun protection.
Whether your sunscreen is broad-spectrum or not, you also need to consider SPF. You’ve probably noticed a huge range of SPFs available, ranging from SPF 15 all the way up to SPF 100+.
“SPF means ‘Sun Protection Factor’ and measures how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet B rays (UVB). No SPF can protect you from all UVB rays. For example, SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays,” Shaurya said.
Because roughly 3% of UVB rays are not blocked, you ultimately can still tan when wearing sunscreen.
So, Can You Still Tan While Wearing Sunscreen?
Sunscreen will reduce your ability to tan, but you absolutely still will get color. However, you are practicing much safer sun exposure when you wear sunblock, which should make it worth it to get a little bit less tan.
“UVL rays are still reaching the skin, and your skin will pigment in an attempt to protect itself from the UVL getting in through the ‘screen’ [of sunscreen],” Skotnicki said.
Shaurya warned, “A tan is indicative of skin damage because UV radiation is causing DNA damage and speeding up the aging of your skin.”
Yes, a tan may look great, but it is sun damage. As mentioned before, not all 100% of UV rays from the sun are blocked by sunscreen. This limitation is why it is possible to tan with sunscreen, and also why it is possible to still experience some sun damage when wearing sunscreen lotion.
However, the damage from the sun will be much less if you wear sunscreen, and experts urge that sunscreen should always be worn during sun exposure. Skipping out on sunblock is simply not worth the risk of skin discoloration or skin cancer.
Skotnicki has advice for those keen on getting tan.
“If people really want some color/a tan, I first, of course, tell them it’s bad, ages you and increases skin cancer [risk]. If that fails and they say they will not do that, then I encourage the use of SPF 50+ for the first few days to get a good base and prevent any burns, then go down to SPF 30.”
So, can you tan with sunscreen SPF 50? You sure can, and it’s the relative safest way to get color without an uncomfortable sunburn.
Best Type of Sunscreen to Prevent Tanning and Sun Damage
The best sunscreen to prevent tanning and provide sun protection is a broad spectrum SPF 50 sunscreen. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, higher SPFs do block slightly more UVB rays than lower SPFs, but none can block 100% of UVB rays.
Regardless of the SPF number, you should reapply every two hours, or after swimming, even if the sunscreen claims to be water-resistant. Additionally, a higher SPF doesn’t mean you have to reapply less frequently.
You can take additional precautions on top of wearing sunscreen, too, for optimal protection. On top of that, you can also stay in the shade, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing, and also avoid activities between 11 AM ad 3 PM when the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
Additionally, you may want to look at the ingredients list on the bottle, especially if you need a sunscreen lotion that is friendly to sensitive skin. Also, because our planet’s pollution problem is becoming more and more pronounced and the oceans’ reefs are dying, you may want to consider reef-safe sunscreen. Some active ingredients to avoid include oxybenzone, octinoxate, parabens, synthetic fragrance, sodium lauryl sulfates, and phthalates.
If you want a tanned look but don’t want a natural tan or sun damage, turn to spray tans or home tanning products. Shaurya recommends these methods for those who want a darker color without UV radiation exposure.
For the Next Time You’re Hanging Out at the Beach
So, next time someone asks you, “Does sunblock prevent tanning?,” you’ll be able to give them all the answers. While it can be tempting to skip out on sunscreen to get a better tan — or out of laziness — it’s not worth the risks that can come along with sun damage, like premature aging and skin cancer. You can still get tan while wearing sunscreen and staying safe, so there’s no excuse to skimp out. Put health and skin care first, and your tan second.
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