Does baby oil help you tan—and more importantly, is it safe?

Baby oil can really benefit skin, but does baby oil help you tan—and is it a good idea to use it in the sun? Experts explain the reality

woman standing against blue wall with the sun shining on her face on an orange background
(Image credit: Future/Getty)

Over the years, baby oil has often been used by those hardcore tanners who want to make the most out of every ray of sun during their vacation. But does baby oil help you tan better and is it even safe to use in the sun? 

Well first thing's first—always make sure you're slathered in one of the best sunscreens for face and for your body whenever you're in the sun. Any part of you that is exposed to the elements and not covered up needs to be protected by a sunscreen or sunblock—even if you're concerned about sunscreen preventing tanning. And a reminder that it's important to wear sunscreen on your face every day—even if you're inside or it's not that sunny outside—as the rays can still penetrate your skin and cause damage.

As for the baby oil point? We've spoken to the experts to get the lowdown on whether baby oil can help you tan and whether it's actually safe to wear...

Meet the experts on tanning and baby oil

  • Dr. Ahmad Fayyaz Chaudhry is a collaborating dermatologist for Scandinavian Biolabs, who has explained the dangers of using baby oil for tanning. 
  • Dr. Kim Harris is an aesthetician and the founder of Prescott Medical Aesthetics. She has explained where the link between baby oil and tanning comes from, and if it's safe for skin to use.
  • Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco is the owner of VW Dermatology Clinic and has explained the risks associated with using baby oil for tanning.

Does baby oil help you tan and is it safe?

A nice, natural, warm glow is on many people's holiday wishlists. But, tanning isn’t particularly good for your skin—a tan is actually a sign of damage—and it can be even more dangerous if you use baby oil, a non-comedogenic mineral oil known for its skin-softening abilities. Does it really help you tan? And is it safe?

Does baby oil for tanning work?

We would add a big disclaimer here that there is actually no "safe" way to get a tan that isn't from a bottle, and you should always protect your skin using a high SPF, such as one of the best dermatologist-recommended sunscreens

As for where the link between baby oil and tanning comes from? "People consider baby oil good for tanning because it helps you get darker faster and more evenly," explains Dr. Kim Harris, owner of Prescott Medical Aesthetics. "It helps absorb the sun’s rays, allowing them to get directly into the skin, resulting in a deeper tan."

“Once you apply the baby oil, you can feel the sunlight getting into your skin,” adds Dr. Ahmad Fayyaz Chaudhry, collaborating dermatologist at Scandinavian Biolabs. “After getting appropriate sunlight, you get a deep and long-lasting tan. It has the most promising results when it comes to tanning."

So you can see why using baby oil is tempting. But before you throw that bottle of baby oil in your beach bag, consider the risks—which are very real.

Is baby oil actually safe to use in the sun?

Like with using coconut oil for tanning, experts do not recommend using baby oil in the sun. In fact, they advise against it, as well as tanning altogether.

“Using baby oil for tanning is a big no-no,” confirms Dr. Harris. On its own, “Baby oil does not contain any SPF that is needed to protect your skin against harmful UVA and UVB rays. It allows the UV rays to deeply penetrate the skin, which can cause severe sunburn and skin damage.”

“As a matter of fact, tanning itself is not healthy or safe for your skin,” Dr. Harris adds. Baby oil has the exact opposite effect as sunscreen. SPF products protect your skin from sun damage by blocking harmful rays, while baby oil welcomes these rays with open arms.

But what if you are especially careful to make sure you don’t burn? A little bit of tanning can’t be that bad, right? Dermatologists disagree.

“Though tanning is considered more aesthetically pleasing than a bright-red sunburn, the truth is that it’s still sun damage,” explains Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco, owner of VW Dermatology Clinic, adding that the negative effects of tanning with oil are the following. 

  • Sunburn
  • Peeling
  • Dry, leathery skin
  • Sunspots
  • Heat rash
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Increased risk of skin cancer

So if you are thinking of using baby oil next time you sunbathe, think about the damage you could be doing to your skin. That tan might look great today, but it could lead to conditions that leave your skin looking and feeling unhealthy.

Why you should always use SPF, not baby oil

When it comes to spending time in the sun, products with SPF are your friend. Baby oil has its hydrating benefits, but it’s a common misconception that it can replace sunscreen or sunblock.

“Baby oil is not your sunscreen if it does not contain specific SPF ingredients,” advises Dr. Chaudhry. Not only should you avoid swapping SPF for baby oil, but you also shouldn’t use baby oil in addition to sunscreen. In keeping your skin youthful and healthy, the key is to soak up fewer UV rays, not more.

That being said, there are some mineral oil products out there that have SPF qualities. “If your baby oil contains coconut oil, lavender, and almonds,” or mineral sunblock ingredients, “then it may be a good natural sunscreen alternative,” says Dr. Chaudhry. Just check the label to ensure it contains a minimum of SPF 30 if you’ll be out in the sun.

In this case, you’d be using the oil as a layer of protection, not a tanning agent. Some people avoid using sunscreen because of the harmful chemicals or due to allergies. Body oils with UV protection can be a good alternative if that is the case for you.

What are the benefits of baby oil, not for tanning?

We aren’t saying baby oil is a total enemy. Quite the opposite! Experts all agree that you should avoid baby oil in the sun, but it has plenty of other skincare uses.

"Rather than using baby oil for tanning, if you have dry to normal skin type, you can use it as a moisturizer," recommends Dr. Harris. "Baby oil is also non-comedogenic, which means this won’t clog your skin's pores, which helps prevent acne formation."

“Most baby oils consist of ingredients like vitamin E, aloe vera, and mineral oils,” says Dr. Chaudhry. These ingredients can be great for your skin, as long as you use them in the right context. Apply baby oil right before bed so as to ensure you don’t get any direct sunlight afterward. Or you can put it on areas of your skin that you don’t expect to get sun while you’re out and about.

The bottom line is: don’t use baby oil for tanning. If you choose to sunbathe, use sunscreen or sunblock, and save the baby oil for when you get home—even if it goes against your instinct regarding using sunscreen or moisturizer first.

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.