Depending on where you live in the world, the sun can be relentless. And, depending on your complexion, your skin may react to that with an accidental tan. If you have olive skin, you know exactly what we mean: your skin just seems to tan on its own. You get tan lines from your glasses, your watches, and your bag straps. It’s a whole thing. So, what can you do if you’re trying to avoid both sunburns and suntans, and keep your skin looking more or less the same year around? You’re going to need a good sunscreen, of course, but will that be enough? Will sunscreen prevent your skin from tanning?
Let’s find out. Along the way, we’ll learn a little more about sunscreen, a little more about tanning, and give you some tips to help you in your quest to be as tan-free as possible. Goodbye, weird accidental tan lines!
On this post:f
- How does sunscreen work?
- How does tanning actually work?
- Can you tan with sunscreen?
- Does sunscreen with high SPF make you darker?
- How can you stop your skin from tanning?
How does sunscreen work?
In order to understand whether sunscreen prevents tanning, we must first know how sunscreen works. Here’s a short primer on that:
A sunscreen is a topical product (meaning, a product you apply to your skin) that protects the skin against the effects of sun radiation. In addition to protecting the skin from sunburn and helping to prevent signs of photoaging, sunscreen is also a key element in skin cancer prevention.
Once you’ve applied your sunscreen, it’ll protect you by either reflecting or absorbing sun radiation–but not all of it. Sunlight contains UVB and UVA radiation; UVB radiation makes up around 5% of the UV rays from the sun, and UVA makes up the rest–a whopping 95%! Now, UVB and UVA radiation are different, and your sunscreen doesn’t offer the same degree of protection against both. Fortunately, there are different indicators to help you figure out how much protection you’re getting from each type.
How much UVB and UVA protection are you really getting?
Let’s take a closer look at a sunscreen’s SPF rating. SPF is a measure of UVB radiation protection. A sunscreen rated SPF15 keeps 93% of UVB radiation away from the skin; for SPF30, that percentage goes up to 97%; for SPF50, 98%. This means that, even if you use the highest sun protection on the market (which will be, in most cases, SPF50 or SPF50+), even if you apply it exactly as directed (without skimping on the amount of product), you will only be able to keep 98% of UVB radiation at bay.
But what about UVA rays? You see, a sunscreen’s SPF rating has nothing to do with UVA protection. To figure out your sunscreen’s UVA protection, you have to look into its PA or PPD rating, which isn’t always available.
You must keep one thing in mind, though: these ratings are informative, but they only reflect the protection levels of your sunscreen when you finish applying it. You won’t maintain that level of protection throughout the day, and we’re about to learn why.
How long does sunscreen last on your skin?
Sunscreen is an incredibly beneficial skincare product, but, as we’ve seen, it can’t protect you against all solar radiation, nor during indefinite periods.
If you’ve ever heard the recommendation that you should apply sunscreen every two hours, this is why: sunscreen breaks down during direct exposure to sunlight. On top of that, there’s the matter of lifestyle: through the course of a long day, you may sweat, touch your face, touch up your makeup, blow your nose, and so on. All of these things physically remove sunscreen from your face throughout the day.
In short: the protective capacity of your sunscreen decreases throughout the day. To keep it as high as possible, you should reapply sunscreen often. If you are outside in broad daylight, the recommendation is to reapply every two hours.
How does tanning actually work?
We all know what tanning is, but do we know how it works? Do we know what’s actually happening to our skin when we tan? Let’s find out.
The first thing you need to know is that tanning is, essentially, a skin reaction to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. When UVA rays penetrate the skin, they trigger a group of skin cells called melanocytes, which begin to produce melanin. Melanin is a natural pigment that is not only responsible for skin color, but also plays an important photoprotective role. According to studies, melanin works both “as a physical barrier that scatters UVR, and as an absorbent filter that reduces the penetration of UV through the epidermis.”
Think about it: your skin senses that it’s being exposed to UV rays and it starts producing melanin, a photoprotective pigment that helps it resist UV-induced damage? That’s not a coincidence. Your skin is producing melanin not to make you look summery and glowy, but to protect you from further sun damage. To quote the Skin Cancer Foundation, “tanning is a sign of skin damage”. In short: if you’re already tanned, your skin has already sustained some degree of damage.
Can you tan with sunscreen?
Now that we know how sunscreen works, and how tanning works, let’s get into it: can you tan with sunscreen? Yes. Yes, you can. If we consider everything we already know about sunscreen (that it only protects against part of the solar radiation and that it degrades after a few hours on the skin), this makes perfect sense.
This may be good or bad news, depending on your personal preference.
If you’re the type of person who wants to tan but thinks sunscreen will prevent that from happening–and so you don’t wear sunscreen, or you wear a very low SPF–we have good news. You can still tan while wearing sunscreen! As we have seen, sunscreen only protects against part of the solar radiation; the part that remains, and that actually reaches your skin, is more than enough to give you a summer tan. There you go, then: wear your sunscreen!
If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who really doesn’t want to tan, and gets frustrated because you continue to tan even with sunscreen on, this is why: your sunscreen doesn’t actually block out the sun! Those are the bad news: there are no absolute “sunblocks” on the market. So, if you’re absolutely committed to keeping your skin from tanning, you’ll have to look beyond sunscreen. We’ll help you figure out a game plan in just a moment.
Does sunscreen with high SPF make you darker?
There’s this myth going around online that wearing sunscreen with high SPF makes your skin darker. Picture this: you wear your sunscreen all summer long, sometimes all year round, and yet your skin insists on tanning. It must be the sunscreen’s fault, right? Wrong. Sunscreen does not make your skin darker.
Here’s what may be happening:
- You’re getting more sun exposure than your sunscreen can “handle”. Say, if you wear your sunscreen and then spend the whole day out in the sun without reapplying it, your skin will tan. As we’ve seen, sunscreen can only offer partial protection from solar radiation, and the level of protection tends to decrease with time. If you really don’t want to tan, you’ll have to look into other ways to limit your sun exposure;
- Your sunscreen formula doesn’t suit your skin. For instance, let’s say you’re applying your sunscreen in the morning and, immediately upon application, you’re finding that your skin looks darker. This may be a matter of perception. Some sunscreens may have a slightly yellow tint, while others may leave a white or greyish cast on the skin. Some are very shiny, while others are extremely matte. These variations may cause your skin to look different. If you don’t like the way you look with a certain sunscreen, you may want to look for alternative formulas.
How can you stop your skin from tanning?
If your goal is to prevent your skin from tanning, wearing sunscreen is without a doubt one of the most important steps you can take. It is not, however, the only one. It’s even more important to avoid excessive sun exposure.
To achieve this, you can avoid going outside when solar radiation is at its strongest (usually between 10am and 4pm). If you really have to go out, stay in the shade as much as possible and keep your skin covered. For your body, you can wear loose clothing that protects you from the sun, such as cotton or linen pants and long sleeves in the summer. A cover-up in a light fabric can also be helpful. For your face, wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat; the latter will not only protect your face, but also your head! (Have you ever suffered a sunburn on your scalp? It’s the worst.)
And let’s go back to sunscreen for a reminder: you should wear sunscreen all year round, whether you want to tan or not. Choose a high protection formula, SPF50 or SPF50+, and make sure to reapply it every two hours if you’re outside.
We’ve looked into sunscreen, we’ve looked into tanning, and we’ve looked into some tips you can put into practice if you want to avoid a sun tan. If you didn’t find any of the tips particularly bold, it’s because they aren’t: safe sun exposure is a pretty reasonable practice! Whether you want to avoid a sun tan, or protect your skin from sun damage, or keep pigmentation disorders like melasma from getting worse, safe sun exposure is never out of the question.
But, say you change your mind and decide you do want that tan after all? No problem: get you a tan in a bottle, and you’ll have full control of your tanning experience.
Beauty Writer & Editor