Can You Tan With Sunscreen? Understanding SPF and Sun Exposure

person applying suncreen at the beach

Can you tan with sunscreen? Yes, but it’s not full-proof. Sunscreen, even with high SPF, reduces but doesn’t entirely block UV rays, which means tanning can occur. In this article, we’ll dive into the relationship between sunscreen, SPF, and tanning, providing you with the information you need to make informed decisions about sun exposure and skin protection.

Key Takeaways

  • Wearing sunscreen does not completely prevent tanning as it cannot block 100% of UV rays, but higher SPF levels reduce UVB penetration and the likelihood of sunburn.
  • Sunscreen should be reapplied approximately every 2 hours, as its effectiveness diminishes over time, and the type of sunscreen (chemical or physical) can affect its ability to protect against tanning.
  • Additional sun protection measures such as wearing sun-protective clothing, seeking shade, and avoiding sun exposure during peak hours are important alongside sunscreen to minimize the risk of skin damage.

Sunscreen and Tanning: The Connection

person applying suncreen at the beach

Despite what most people believe, wearing sunscreen doesn’t mean you won’t tan. It’s a myth that needs to be debunked. While sunscreen is critical in shielding our skin from harmful UV rays, it doesn’t entirely block tanning. Sunscreen and tanning are intertwined in a way that’s vital for everyone to understand.

Higher the SPF (Sun Protection Factor), lesser the UVB rays penetrate the skin, and lesser the likelihood of a sunburn. However, bear in mind that no sunscreen can fully shield all UV rays, thus a certain degree of tanning may still happen.

How Sunscreen Works

So, how does sunscreen work? The active components in sunscreen, such as:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • homosalate
  • octinoxate
  • octisalate

either absorb the UV radiation and emit it as heat or reflect and scatter the radiation away from the skin. This protective layer on your skin is what keeps you from getting sunburned and reduces the risk of skin cancer and skin damage.

However, the effectiveness of sunscreen isn’t everlasting. It maintains its effectiveness only for approximately 2 to 4 hours after application. Both environmental aspects and the sunscreen’s SPF level affect this timeframe, underlining the need for regular reapplication.

SPF Levels and Tanning

Understanding the link between SPF levels and tanning is a key aspect. SPF measures the amount of UVB absorption, indicating the level of protection against UVB rays. For instance:

  • An SPF 15 sunscreen can block about 93% of UVB rays
  • An SPF 30 sunscreen can block about 97% of UVB rays
  • An SPF 50 sunscreen can block about 98% of UVB rays

Nonetheless, sunscreen with a higher SPF can merely lessen the chance of tanning, but not entirely stop it. After all, no sunscreen can block 100% of UVB rays. So even with a high SPF sunscreen, a certain amount of tanning can still occur, and using sunscreen prevent tanning from being more severe.

Types of Sunscreens and Their Effect on Tanning

comparison of chemical and physical sunscreen

Given our understanding that sunscreen doesn’t entirely ward off tanning, it’s worth exploring the various kinds of sunscreens and their effects on tanning. The primary categories of sunscreens available in the market are mineral and chemical sunscreens.

The type of sunscreen you choose can impact the tanning process. While chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and alter them to prevent skin damage, physical or mineral sunscreens reflect and scatter the UV rays.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens, or organic sunscreens, create a protective layer on the skin. The active components in these sunscreens absorb UV radiation before it can harm the skin. The commonly found ingredients in chemical sunscreens include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene

Even though chemical sunscreens are capable of absorbing UV radiation, they don’t entirely block tanning. Some level of UV radiation may still penetrate the skin, allowing for a certain amount of tanning to occur.

Physical Sunscreens

On the other hand, physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, protect the skin by reflecting and scattering UV light. The primary components in these sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which form a protective barrier on the skin’s surface, thereby offering more protection against tanning, but not completely preventing it.

It’s worth noting that the UV protection mechanisms of physical and chemical sunscreens differ. While physical sunscreens reflect the sun’s rays, chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays into the skin and transform them into heat.

Safeguarding Your Skin From Sun Damage

person reapplying sunscreen on a sunny day

To guard your skin against sun damage, it’s imperative to select the appropriate sunscreen and apply it accurately. The SPF level serves as an indicator of how much UVB radiation the sunscreen can protect against. For instance, SPF 30 sunscreen can block about 97% of UVB rays, providing adequate protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays.

Besides SPF, it’s also important to consider the type of sunscreen. As discussed earlier, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation, while physical sunscreens reflect UV light. This difference in working mechanism could affect their respective effectiveness in protecting against tanning.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen

It’s advisable to opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen product with a minimum SPF of 30 when making a choice. Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays, thereby safeguarding against sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. Products containing ingredients like Tinosorb S and M, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide provide high protection against tanning.

In addition, mineral sunscreens may offer better protection against tanning compared to chemical sunscreens. This is because mineral sunscreens reflect UV light and create a barrier on the skin, offering immediate protection.

Proper Application and Reapplication

Applying sunscreen correctly is just as important as choosing the right one. To achieve effective sun protection, it’s advisable to apply one ounce of sunscreen, or enough to fill a shot glass, to cover your entire body.

However, one application isn’t enough for sun protection. For consistent skin protection, reapply sunscreen at least every 80 minutes or every two hours, and especially after swimming or sweating.

The Dangers of Tanning and Alternatives

woman receiving spray tan in a salon

While a sun-kissed glow might seem attractive, tanning carries significant health risks. From premature skin aging to a heightened risk of skin cancer, the dangers of tanning are far too great to ignore.

Fortunately, there are safer alternatives to achieve that desired tan with sunscreen, without exposing your skin to the harmful effects of the sun or tanning beds.

Risks of Tanning

Tanning, whether through sun exposure or tanning beds, can cause severe skin damage. The UV radiation from tanning can lead to genetic mutations and cellular damage, increasing the risk of serious skin diseases, such as melanoma.

Furthermore, tanning is associated with an increased likelihood of developing basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, which are all forms of developing skin cancer. In fact, studies have found that 97% of women diagnosed with melanoma before age 30 had used tanning beds.

Safer Tanning Alternatives

Despite the dangers of traditional tanning, many people still desire that bronzed look. Thankfully, safer alternatives exist. Sunless tanning products, such as self-tanners and spray tans, simulate a sun-kissed appearance without exposing the skin to harmful UV rays.

These products work by temporarily altering the color of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. While the effects only last up to a week or ten days, they provide a safe way to achieve a tan without the associated risks of traditional tanning.

Sun Protection Beyond Sunscreen

person wearing protective clothing and sunglasses

Although sunscreen protects your skin from the sun, it’s not the sole protective measure. To further safeguard yourself, wear sunscreen, along with sun-protective clothing and seeking shade, to provide additional protection against harmful UV rays.

Whether you’re at the beach or simply walking around town, these measures can significantly reduce your sun exposure and minimize the risk of skin damage.

Protective Clothing and Accessories

Clothing can serve as a physical barrier between your skin and the sun’s harmful UV rays. Wearing:

  • long-sleeved shirts
  • long pants
  • wide-brimmed hats
  • sunglasses

Clothing can provide optimal protection, particularly those with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating, offering enhanced protection against both UVA rays and UVB rays.

When choosing sun-protective clothing, consider the fabric. Densely woven fabrics such as:

  • denim
  • canvas
  • wool
  • synthetic fibers

provide high protection. However, untreated cotton, rayon, flax, and hemp offer limited UV protection. Similarly, when choosing sunglasses, ensure they offer 100% UV protection.

Seeking Shade and Avoiding Peak Sun Hours

Seeking shade during peak sun hours, typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., can significantly reduce your sun exposure. This simple measure can help protect against overexposure to UV radiation, which can cause sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer.

Avoiding outdoor activities during these peak sun hours can also help reduce sun exposure. If you can’t avoid being outdoors, make sure to seek shade whenever possible.

The Vitamin D Debate: Does Sunscreen Affect Vitamin D Absorption?

A prevalent worry is whether the use of sunscreen could result in a vitamin D deficiency. While it’s true that the skin produces vitamin D in response to sun exposure, research has shown that sunscreen inhibit vitamin D insufficiency, meaning that regular use of sunscreen does not result in vitamin D deficiency.

Adequate levels of vitamin D can be maintained through a balanced diet and supplements. Foods like fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks are rich in vitamin D. So even when wearing sunscreen, you can still meet your vitamin D needs.


In conclusion, while sunscreen doesn’t entirely prevent tanning, it’s an essential tool in protecting your skin from harmful UV rays. It’s important to understand how different types of sunscreens work, how to choose the right one, and how to apply it correctly. Remember, tanning carries significant health risks, and safer alternatives exist. Besides using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, seeking shade, and avoiding peak sun hours can provide additional sun protection. Lastly, despite common concerns, using sunscreen doesn’t lead to vitamin D deficiency, as you can get sufficient vitamin D through diet and supplements.

Frequently Asked Questions


What SPF is best for tanning?

Using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15-30 is ideal for tanning while still providing some protection from the sun’s harmful rays.

Can I tan with SPF 50?

Yes, you can still tan with SPF 50 as it doesn’t block all ultraviolet rays, allowing you to get a bronze tan while protecting your skin.

How do you get really tan?

To get a really tan, always use sun protection and build your tan up slowly to prevent burning. Additionally, consider using tanning lotion or getting a spray tan for a tan without harmful UV rays. Avoid sunbeds and apply the right sunscreen for a safe and natural tan.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunscreen works by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering UV rays to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful effects. It provides varying levels of protection depending on the SPF.

What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens?

The main difference between chemical and physical sunscreens is that chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, while physical sunscreens reflect and scatter them. This helps to prevent skin damage.


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