We Ask a Derm: Does Wearing Sunscreen Prevent You From Getting a Tan?

Is there such a thing as a “healthy tan”?

Recently we were asked whether wearing sunscreen prevents you from getting a tan, and we weren’t entirely sure, so we put the call out to a panel of dermatologists for some answers. Ahead, a breakdown of what happens to your skin when you tan (with and without sunscreen on), as well as the only derm-approved way to get glowing.

We Ask a Derm: How Do You Prevent Your Sunscreen from Pilling?

Meet the Experts:

  • Dr. David Kim is a board-certified dermatologist with IDRISS Dermatology in New York City. Kim received his Doctorate of Medicine (MD) from Stanford University and completed dermatology residency at the University of Southern California, where he served as a chief resident. Prior to his dermatologic training, Dr. Kim worked at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on issues related to HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria as a research assistant to Dr. Jim Kim, the 12th President of the World Bank.
  • Dr. Jaimie DeRosa is a double board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in facial procedures, especially rhinoplasty (both primary and revision) and aging face surgery. She is the lead physician and founder of the DeRosa Center Facial Plastic Surgery & Med Spa in Boston, MA.
  • Dr. Noreen Galaria is a board-certified dermatologist and is fellowship trained in laser medicine and cosmetic surgery. She is also the founder of Inner Glow Vitamins and has trained and taught at many universities including Georgetown and George Washington University. Her research has been featured in numerous medical publications and presented papers at the American Academy of Dermatology, Society of Investigative Dermatology and the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery.
  • Dr. Wayne D. Carey is a board-certified dermatologist, who conducted NEEL Gel’s IRB-approved Human Clinical Trial. Carey graduated from medical school at the University of Alberta. He completed his Internal Medicine internship and Residency training in Dermatology at the Royal Victoria Hospital, McGill University, Montreal. Following this he did an additional 3-year fellowship in Dermatology at Hospital St Louis in Paris. He was one of the founding members of the Canadian Society of Dermatologic Surgery and is also CEO of Siena Medical Research Corporation which is involved in clinical research.

What Happens to Your Skin When You Tan?

“When your skin is exposed to excess sunlight, it is damaged at the cellular level and tries to protect itself from additional UV damage by increasing the production of pigment (aka melanin) in the skin, which in turn makes the skin look tanned or darker,” explains DeRosa.

While it’s pretty incredible that our bodies have this built-in protection mechanism, by no means does this mean that getting a tan is a good thing. “My patients will sometimes come into my office with a tan after their most recent beach trip and tell me that they’re really happy they didn’t burn, but unfortunately, tanning counts as sun damage too,” says Galaria. “In fact, the deeper or darker the tan, the harder your body has worked to protect its cells from being damaged by the sun.”

How Does Sunscreen Work?

“The goal of all sunscreens is to prevent UV rays from the sun from reaching our cells and damaging them,” says Galaria. There are two different types of sunscreens that do this: physical and chemical.

“Physical sunscreens have UV filters such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that physically block the UV rays from damaging the skin. It’s like a protector that sits on your skin,” explains Kim. In contrast, chemical sunscreens soak into the skin and absorb UV rays before they can cause damage to the surrounding skin cells.

Or as Galaria sums up nicely: “Physical sunscreens act like a shield, while chemical sunscreens act like a sponge.” Both are good choices, so it’ll come down to whichever type you’re most likely to use regularly. For people with sensitive skin, it’s often recommended that you go with a physical blocker, as they’re less likely to cause irritation. Their main downside is that they can leave more a white cast, compared to chemical formulas, which tend to rub in more easily.

No matter which type of sunscreen you go for, make sure it says the words “broad spectrum” on the label, which means it’ll protect against both UVA and UVB rays.  “UVA damage is what causes wrinkles, a loss of elasticity and increased pigmentation changes. Think ‘A’ for aging. UVB damage is ‘Bad,’ which means that UVB rays can cause genetic changes within skin cells that cause pre-cancerous lesions (e.g., actinic keratosis) and skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma,” explains DeRosa.

Does Sunscreen Prevent Tanning?

“Yes and no. Wearing sunscreen can significantly reduce tanning, but won’t prevent it 100 percent,” says Kim. One of the main reasons for this is that most of us don’t apply enough sunscreen (the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher) and we also don’t reapply as often as we should (every two hours).

Is There a Way to Tan Safely?

“I would not recommend tanning intentionally. Period,” states Kim. “It increases your risk for skin cancer significantly and it leads to premature aging. But if you still want to tan, please wear sunscreen and reapply every it two hours because even then, you’ll tan.”

Carey agrees, adding that “We can't live indoors all year, so you can do things to diminish your sun damage like wearing sunscreens and protective clothing. But to ask if you can tan safely, the answer is no because once the ultraviolet light hits your skin, it causes some damage to your cells.”

The safest way to tan is to use self-tanners. “There are a ton of great options on the market today. I like the drops for your face because these can be added to your current moisturizer or sunscreen to give you a gradual tan, whereas the foams and lotions are great for the body. I’m not a fan of spray tans and ask my patients to save those for special occasions only because of inhalation risk,” says Galaria.

While it’s too late to take back the trips to tanning beds in our misguided youth, we will definitely stay on top of our sunscreen game from this point forward. Suns out, buns...are covered!

Shop Our Experts’ Sunscreen Recs:

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...