Is it ever safe to use coconut oil for tanning? Experts share their thoughts

Dermatologists say stay away from coconut oil for tanning—but there other ways it can benefit skin

Collage of model with sunshine on face
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If you've heard skincare enthusiasts raving about the benefits of natural botanicals like coconut in their raw form, you may think it’s a good idea to try using pure coconut oil for tanning. But will coconut oil actually keep your skin safe from the sun's harmful UV rays?

Unfortunately, it won't. In fact, dermatologists strongly advise against it. The unanimous advice is to wear the best sunscreen for your face and body any time your skin will be exposed to the sun.

But applying coconut oil to your skin isn’t entirely off-limits. We asked the experts for their insights as to why coconut oil isn’t a good sunscreen alternative, how to safely protect your skin from the sun, and how to enjoy the hydrating benefits of coconut oil back at home.

Meet the experts on coconut oil and tanning

  • Dr. Kim Harris is the owner of Prescott Medical Aesthetics and has explained the risks around using coconut oil for tanning.
  • Dr. Stefani Kappel is a dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon, who has shared her thoughts on using coconut oil in place of sunscreen, as well as other natural sunscreen alternatives.
  • Elle MacLeman is a skincare biochemist for The Derm Review and here shares some insights into the reality of wearing coconut oil instead of sunscreen.

Is it safe to use coconut oil for tanning? Experts answer

The short answer is, no. "Using coconut oil for tanning is definitely not advisable!" says Dr. Kim Harris, owner of Prescott Medical Aesthetics. "It does not contain sufficient SPF to protect our skin against harmful UVA and UVB rays."

Elle MacLeman, skincare biochemist for The Derm Review, says that coconut oil is estimated to have an SPF of between one and four. This means it will take you one to four times longer to burn when wearing coconut oil, compared to exposing your bare skin to the sun (which is never advisable). That’s nowhere near enough protection.

"The American Academy of Dermatology recommends [wearing] a minimum of SPF 30 to protect skin from the sun’s rays," she continues, adding that even those coconut oil SPF estimates are unreliable. "One of the other main issues with using coconut oil as sun protection is that the level of protection will vary based on the source and growing conditions of the coconut oil. This makes it hard to rely on any level of SPF."

The key takeaway here is that you should always wear sunscreen or sunblock when out in the sun, even if you're worried sunscreen could prevent tanning.

What happens to skin if you use coconut oil instead of sunscreen?

Don’t get us wrong, experimenting with new and natural products as part of your skincare routine can be a good thing. But when it comes to sun protection, you really can’t afford to take any risks.

As Dr. Harris explains, “Getting too much exposure to the sun without enough protection may cause premature aging, skin damage, hyperpigmentation, or worse, lead to skin cancer.” 

According to dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr. Stefani Kappel, slathering on coconut oil is "not enough to protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV light, including DNA mutations and the breakdown of extracellular matrix proteins. Coconut oil also does not block the full UV spectrum but just small pieces of it. It should never be a substitute for sunscreen."

Remember, SPF rating only applies to UVB rays, and sunscreen should be labeled as "broad spectrum" to protect against UVA rays, too. In other words, choosing to wear coconut oil in the sun could leave you reaching for the best remedy for sunburn in the short term, and with skin damage in the long term.

How to take care of your skin when you're in the sun

Whether you’re planning a chilled day at the pool or an active day outdoors, it’s essential to wear sufficient sun protection. Start by choosing the right product, be sure to reapply it throughout the day and always keep note of your sunscreen expiration dates. 

"I always recommend using sunscreen that contains SPF 30 or higher," says Dr. Harris. "Always apply sunscreen before going out and reapply after two hours."

Contrary to popular belief, it is still popular to develop a summery glow even with the correct SPF application—but you'll significantly reduce your risk of sunburn. 

What to use if you’re looking for natural sun protection

If you were drawn to coconut oil because it sounds like a natural alternative to chemical sunscreen, know that there are safer and more effective products that are both natural and protective against the sun’s radiation.

Look for a mineral sunscreen that contains zinc oxide, which Dr. Kappel describes as "the best natural protective sunscreen. Studies show that at least 7% zinc oxide is needed for complete protection."

"This sits on top of your skin, blocking and absorbing a broad spectrum of UVA and UVB rays," she continues. "It's great for people with sensitive skin. Plus, it’s water- and light-resistant, too."

What to use if you crave coconut’s tropical fragrance in the sun

“There’s a key difference between using coconut oil as an ingredient and coconut oil as the main product,” Elle explains. If your beach day simply won’t be the same without that familiar coconut scent, look for a broad-spectrum SPF product that contains a natural coconut fragrance. You’ll smell just like a piña colada without turning red like a lobster.

How to get the benefits of coconut oil away from the sun

Although coconut oil doesn’t offer much in the way of sun protection, it does have some benefits for the skin, which Dr. Kappel notes are largely hydrating and anti-inflammatory. "By decreasing inflammation and minimizing transepidermal water loss, it provides a protective barrier for the skin and keeps the skin cells hydrated. It also reduces redness and irritation in sensitive skin," 

For these reasons, you can try it as a moisturizer whenever you need an extra boost of natural hydration—though unless your skin is extremely dry, you may find that it's better suited to the skin on your body. Alternatively, you can look for products with coconut oil as an ingredient. You’ll find it in everything from body butters, scrubs, and lip balms to hair masks, leave-in conditioners, cuticle care products, and more.

So, while coconut oil is definitely not a safe sunscreen alternative, it can help to keep your skin soft and radiant all year round. Just keep in mind that coconut oil is comedogenic, meaning it can clog pores—therefore it may not be a great choice for your face if you have oily skin, and certainly not acne. If you need something more appropriate for these skin types, look for non-comedogenic options. 

Aleesha Badkar
Former Deputy Editor at My Imperfect Life

Aleesha was Deputy Editor and Beauty & Fashion Editor for My Imperfect Life, where she headed up the beauty, fashion and eCommerce pages. Previously she was Shopping Writer at woman&home and gained an AOP awards nomination after working on their news team. She earned an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London in 2017 and has since worked with a number of brands including, Women's Health, Stylist and Goodto. When she’s not testing all the new beauty & lifestyle products on the market, Aleesha spends her time soaking up the newest bestsellers and Netflix releases, watching everything Marvel, learning about different wines, attempting new languages and traveling as much as she can.