Does sunscreen prevent tanning? Our dermatologists set the record straight

Does sunscreen prevent tanning? Skincare experts provide the answers you won’t find on the back of the bottle.

woman tanning
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Serious question, does sunscreen prevent tanning? Whether you’re chasing a glow or keen to keep your skin away from the sun, you know you’re supposed to apply SPF before you head out. But is it likely to block you from a bronzed glow? Or will you inevitably end up with tan lines, whether you want them or not?

To shed some light on the subject, we spoke with two skincare specialists: biochemist and This Works CEO Anna Persaud, Ph.D., and board-certified dermatologist Maryann Mikhail, M.D. of Waverly DermSpa.

Both sun protection experts agree that if you use sunscreen correctly, it will and should limit tanning. However,  they also highlight that even when using the best sunscreen for face and body (sidenote: whether you're using sunscreen vs sunblock is another thing to consider) there’s no such thing as a safe tan. 

Here’s how sunscreen actually prevents tanning

“Tanning is the skin's injury response,” explains Dr. Mikhail (opens in new tab). “When it senses UV damage taking place, it stimulates pigment-producing cells to ramp up production of melanin for protection.” 

Although you might love the look of a fresh tan, it’s really your skin’s cry for help. Truth hurts—and so does sunburn. 

However, sunscreen can soften the impact, though before you use it, ask yourself: does my sunscreen expire? To which the answer is yes, meaning you should check the date on you bottle. When it's good to go, it's essential protection. 

“Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays while mineral sunscreens reflect them away,” Dr. Mikhail says. Both work to “protect skin from harmful UV rays that can cause premature aging, hyperpigmentation, sunspots, and wrinkles.” 

In other words, SPF is on your side if you want to preserve a more youthful and clear complexion. Because it blocks or absorbs harmful UV rays, Dr. Persaud says that “correct application of sunscreen should, therefore, limit your tanning—but it won’t stop it completely.” 

Even if you’re wearing a high-quality, high-SPF product, it’s still only a protective layer. It’s not impenetrable armor, and it will wear off. Especially if you're not clear on whether to apply suncreen or moisturizer first (it all depends on the type you use). That said, sunscreen is still an essential first line of defense against damaging sun exposure.

A cropped image of a woman relaxing on sand at the beach

(Image credit: Getty Images / Jonathan Storey)

Is there a healthy way to get a natural tan? 

No matter what your tiniest two-piece might tell you, the answer to this is sadly, no. 

“The reality is that there is no 100% safe or healthy way to get a tan—a statement that makes me incredibly unpopular with friends,” says Dr. Persaud (opens in new tab). “But it’s true and I think it’s really important that those of us with a voice in the beauty industry are clear on this.”

While natural sunlight keeps Vitamin D levels up and acts as “a key part of our circadian rhythm” during the daytime, Dr. Persaud notes that this type of “healthy sun exposure” shouldn’t be confused with laying out under the blazing sun for hours on end.

If you want to get a deeper glow while keeping your skin healthy, it’ll have to be an indoor activity. “The only ‘safe’ tan is a fake tan,” Dr. Persaud says. 

What should you know if you want to avoid a tan?

If you’re at the other end of the spectrum and you want to avoid tanning like the plague, skincare experts recommend the following steps:

  • First, limit your sun exposure when the sun is at its highest and hottest. Depending on where you are, that usually starts around 11 a.m. or noon and extends until 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.
  • Next, when you do go outside, apply sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30. Increase to at least SPF 50 if you’ll be getting a lot of sun exposure. And remember to reapply once every two hours or if you get wet.
  • Finally, dress the part. For an added layer of complexion protection, Dr. Persaud suggests wearing “a wide-brimmed hat, UV blocking sunglasses, and also a long-sleeved, light cover-up.”

You’ll be a total smokeshow—without burning up.

My Imperfect Life thanks Dr. Anna Persaud of This Works and Dr. Maryann Mikhail of Waverly DermSpa for their time and expertise.

Aleesha is acting deputy editor for My Imperfect Life, where she looks after the beauty, fashion and eCommerce pages. Previously she was shopping writer for 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 new products, Aleesha spends her time soaking up the newest bestsellers and Netflix releases, exploring different wines, attempting new languages and (in non-COVID times) has been known to be a bit of a jetsetter after spending a year living in Madrid.