Some people may chase sun-kissed skin all year long, but this can come at a hefty price to your skin health—from a wrinkled, leathery complexion to dark spots to increased skin cancer risk. This is why you should always wear sunscreen when you step outside, even when the sun isn't at its peak strength. But how much does sunscreen protect you, anyway? Can you still get a tan with sunscreen?

The quick answer is yes, but there's actually much more to it. Here's what you need to know when it comes to sunscreen and tanning.

What Causes Your Skin to Tan?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, tanning happens when the skin produces a protective skin-darkening pigment called melanin. This bodily response helps prevent further skin damage from the sun's (or, even worse, a tanning bed's) harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. This natural defense can happen to anyone at any age and on any skin type, though fair skin may be more likely to burn than tan.

Can You Still Get a Tan with Sunscreen?

So, does sunscreen prevent tanning? It's a myth that sunscreen prevents tanning altogether. While sunscreen protects against UV rays, there's still a chance you'll get some color on your skin. It's also a myth that getting a "base tan" will make your skin more tolerant to UV rays or help prevent sunburn.

As a refresher, sunscreen comes in chemical and physical-based formulas, which work to absorb or block incoming UV rays, respectively. These formulas minimize skin damage and reduce skin cancer risk, but they can't filter out 100 percent of the sun's rays. For example, an SPF 15 sunscreen filters approximately 93 percent of UVB rays, while a sunscreen with SPF 50 filters around 98 percent of UVB rays. Sounds good, right? Well, bear in mind that this number assumes you're applying and reapplying exactly as directed. This isn't always the case, even with the most diligent sunscreen users.

To What Extent Does Sunscreen Prevent Tanning?

Because no SPF product can protect you completely, you can still get a tan while wearing sunscreen. And given that any tan, no matter how slight, indicates your body's response to damaging UV light, this isn't a good thing.

Your First Line of Defense

The best thing you can do for your skin health is to avoid intentional tanning and wear a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day. For example, EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 gives the skin adequate UV protection with micronized Zinc Oxide while boasting high-purity Niacianimde to help reduce the appearance of existing blemishes and discoloration. If you love to spend time in the water, consider a water-resistant option with a higher SPF, like EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50. This formula offers up to 80 minutes of UV protection when swimming or playing water sports, making it ideal for a day at the beach or pool.

Other Ways to Protect Your Skin

Enhance your protection against UV rays and prevent tanning by seeking shade when the sun's rays are strongest (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., depending on your location). Cover your skin as much as possible with loose, light layers, wraparound sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed, tightly woven hat—UV light is so powerful that it can penetrate through sheer and loosely woven fabrics. Some types of clothing and swimwear even have UV protection built into their fabric, which is ideal for children and anyone who's especially sensitive to the sun. Making these habits part of your overall sun protection routine can help prevent skin cancer and minimize visible signs of aging down the road.

How Does Tanning Affect Skin Health?

The Food and Drug Administration lists the following as negative side effects of tanning:

  • Sunburn
  • Premature aging
  • Skin cancer
  • Actinic or solar keratoses (dry, scaly patches of skin)
  • Eye damage
  • Weakened immune system

Taking Pride in Healthy Skin

First and foremost, it's important to feel comfortable in your own skin. When you think about all your skin does for you, you'll soon realize it's an amazing organ that deserves as much care and attention as other parts of your body. Still, if you're looking to get some quick color, you have plenty of options that are less harmful than tanning.

For example, experiment with self-tanning products. Tanning lotions and sprays give you bronze skin without any of the aforementioned side effects. You can do it at home or even book a spray tan at a salon. Darker, well-blended makeup can have a similar effect for a night out. Or, for a subtle treatment, consider a tinted sunscreen.

For a healthy, natural glow, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends doing aerobic or high-intensity exercises, drinking lots of water, and eating whole, unprocessed foods. You can even wear certain colors to make your skin pop. Bright colors—such as orange, lemon yellow, and white—provide contrast to make your skin appear darker. All things considered, skip the suntanning sessions and opt for one of these safer options. Your skin will thank you!


  • Catherine Hufton

    Catherine Hufton is a UK-based freelance journalist and writer who has worked for some of fashion's most iconic companies and written for the world's best known magazines and newspapers. Beginning her career at Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion over 12 years ago, she has created content for L'Oréal, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, The Telegraph and more.

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