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Sunscreen 101: Does sunscreen prevent tanning?

Spoiler alert: There’s only one way to get a safe tan.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 27, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
Woman Rubbing Sunscreen on Shoulder
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 27, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Sunscreen is a non-negotiable product that shields our skin from harmful UV rays, helping to prevent sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and even skin cancer. But have you ever wondered if your SPF is also preventing you from getting that coveted summer glow? And is there a safe way to get a tan?

Our experts are here to answer those questions. Here, we’ll dive into the relationship between sunscreen and tanning.

Understanding sunscreen

Before we get into how sunscreen works, it’s important to understand the different types of UV radiation (UVC, UVB, and UVA). The ozone layer primarily absorbs UVC and a significant amount of UVB rays, but it isn’t as effective in blocking UVA rays.¹ UVA rays can penetrate your skin, leading to skin aging and pigmentation while UVB rays cause sunburns.² Choosing sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB radiation, is important. 

Now that we’ve covered the different types of UV rays, let’s look into the two main types of sunscreens: chemical and physical.

Chemical sunscreens have a unique structure that allows them to absorb high-energy UV rays and release them at a lower energy level, reducing the amount of UV light that reaches your skin.³ These sunscreens can absorb both UVA and UVB radiation. On the other hand, physical sunscreens, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, work by reflecting and scattering UV light away from your skin. They form a protective barrier and are generally less likely to cause skin sensitivity since they do not penetrate the outermost layer of skin.⁴

In addition to UV protection, some sunscreens also incorporate antioxidants. These substances may help minimize the harmful effects of UV radiation on your skin cells. To ensure optimal protection, apply sunscreen generously and reapply it every two hours or after swimming or sweating. We recommend using sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher.⁵

The science of tanning 

Tanning is a natural process that occurs when your skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources—it’s the skin’s way of protecting itself from further UV damage. Here’s a simple explanation of how tanning works:

UV radiation, specifically UVB and UVA rays, stimulates specialized cells called melanocytes in the epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin). These melanocytes produce a pigment called melanin. Melanin has a shielding effect as it not only acts as a physical barrier that scatters UV rays but also serves as an absorbent filter that decreases the amount of UV penetrated through the skin.⁶ Upon exposure to UV radiation, melanocytes increase the production of melanin and release it to neighboring skin cells called keratinocytes. Melanin then spreads within these keratinocytes and forms a protective shield around the cell nucleus, where our DNA is located.⁷

As the amount of melanin increases, your skin gradually darkens, resulting in a tan. The darkening of your skin is a visible sign that your body is attempting to protect itself from further UV damage. ⁸

Is tanning bad for your skin?

It’s important to note that a tan is not a sign of good health—no matter how desirable it may seem! In fact, tanning indicates that your skin has already experienced damage from UV radiation. Protecting your skin from excessive sun exposure is crucial to maintain its health and reduce the risk of sun damage, premature aging, and skin cancer.⁹

Using sunscreen regularly and following sun-safe practices, such as staying in the shade, wearing sun-protective clothing, and avoiding going out when the sun is strongest, can help minimize the harmful effects of UV radiation on your skin.¹⁰

Can sunscreen prevent tanning?

Since sunscreen provides protection against the sun’s damaging rays, it does offer some degree of prevention against tanning. 

By blocking or absorbing UV rays, sunscreen limits the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin and triggers the tanning response. In one study, the majority of participants acknowledged that sunscreens provide protection against sun damage and tanning and used sunscreen for that reason.¹¹

Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. UVA rays contribute to skin aging and pigmentation, while UVB rays cause sunburn and DNA damage. By using a broad-spectrum sunscreen, you can help prevent both immediate skin damage (such as sunburn) and long-term effects (such as skin cancer).¹²

While sunscreen is a valuable tool for sun protection, it does not provide 100% protection against the sun’s rays. It’s important to exercise caution and take additional measures to avoid excessive sun exposure, even when wearing sunscreen. Limiting time in the sun, seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing are all important strategies to complement sunscreen usage.

If you want a tan while protecting your skin, self-tanners can be a great option. Self-tanners work by providing color to the outermost layer of your skin without exposure to UV radiation. This allows you to achieve a tan-like appearance while minimizing sun damage.

The importance of sun protection 

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of sun protection for your skin:¹³

Reduces skin damage and skin cancers: Sun protection measures, such as using sunscreen and seeking shade, help to minimize the harmful effects of UV radiation on your skin. This includes reducing the risk of skin damage, such as sunburns, as well as the development of skin cancers.

Helps prevent photoaging: UV radiation is a significant contributor to photoaging, which leads to premature skin aging, including wrinkles, sagging, and uneven pigmentation. Consistent sun protection can help prevent or minimize these signs of aging caused by sun exposure.

Prevents photocarcinogenesis: UV radiation can cause photocarcinogenesis, the process that damages cells and DNA, increasing the risk of skin cancer. Regular sun protection practices, such as using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing, can reduce the risk of photocarcinogenesis and subsequent skin cancer.

Reduces sunburns: Severe or recurrent sunburns are a known risk factor for nonmelanoma skin cancers. Sun protection measures, including the use of sunscreen, help to prevent sunburns and minimize their associated risks.

By implementing sun protection measures, such as using a broad-spectrum sunscreen, wearing hats and sunglasses, and staying in the shade during peak sunlight, you can significantly reduce the risk of UV radiation-related skin damage and promote your skin health and overall well-being.

Sun protection with Curology

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Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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At Curology, we offer high-quality sun protection with a sunscreen that absorbs quickly and isn’t greasy. Our non-comedogenic sunscreen is made with proven ingredients and has a silky, soft-focus finish that leaves your skin feeling smooth and fresh. So why wait? Start your journey to healthier skin with Curology's The Sunscreen today!

FAQs

Can you still tan with sunscreen?

Yes, it’s still possible to tan with sunscreen since sunscreen does not provide 100% protection against UV radiation. While sunscreen reduces the risk of sun damage and the resulting skin darkening, it may not completely prevent tanning. If you want a tan while protecting your skin, self-tanners are a better option as they provide color without exposure to UV radiation.

Can any sunscreen prevent tanning?

All sunscreens can help prevent tanning to some extent because they protect the skin from sun damage that leads to skin darkening. By applying sunscreen regularly and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that covers UVA and UVB rays, you can minimize the likelihood of tanning. Higher SPF sunscreens, such as those with SPF 70+, may offer better protection against UV radiation if applied as directed.¹⁴

Do you tan better when wearing sunscreen?

Wearing sunscreen while exposed to the sun’s UV rays is much safer for your skin. However, wearing sunscreen may reduce the intensity of your tan since it provides protection that can prevent your skin from darkening. If achieving a tan is a priority, sunless tanning methods like self-tanner are a great alternative to avoid the potential drawbacks of UV exposure and sunscreen use.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. (2023, March 7).

  2. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  3. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  4. Sambandan, D.R. and Ratner, D. Sunscreens: an overview and update. J Am Acad Dermatol. (April 2011).

  5. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  6. Brenner, M. and Hearing, V.J. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. (May 2008).

  7. Brenner, M. and Hearing, V.J. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. Ibid.

  8. Brenner, M. and Hearing, V.J. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. Ibid.

  9. Shanbhag, S., et al. Anti-aging and Sunscreens: Paradigm Shift in Cosmetics. Adv Pharm Bull. (2019, August 1).

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sun Safety. (2023, April 18).

  11. Agarwal, S.B., et al. Knowledge and Attitude of General Population toward Effects of Sun Exposure and Use of Sunscreens. Indian J Dermatol. (July 2018).

  12. Sivamani, R.K., et al. The benefits and risks of ultraviolet tanning and its alternatives: the role of prudent sun exposure. Dermatol Clin. (April 2009).

  13. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  14. Ou-Yang, H., et al. High-SPF sunscreens (SPF ≥ 70) may provide ultraviolet protection above minimal recommended levels by adequately compensating for lower sunscreen user application amounts. J Am Acad Dermatol. (December 2012).

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

*Sunscreen cannot prevent all harm from UV rays.

*PSA for your future skin: sunscreen alone cannot prevent all UV damage.

*Protect your future skin by wearing sunscreen and limiting direct sun exposure.

*Sun damage is still a risk even while wearing sunscreen.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner

Laura Phelan, NP-C

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