Can You Tan Without Tanning Lotion?

On Beach with Hat
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Tanning Lotions and oils are liquids that you apply to your skin in order to improve the quality of your tanning, and hopefully the speed of your tanning. Many of these formulas consist wholly of natural ingredients like coffee oils and jojoba oil that moisturize the skin and magnify the tanning process. But others include sunscreens and other chemical-based ingredients that protect from harmful UV rays but have questionable safety.

So do you need tanning lotion at all? Can you tan without tanning lotion, outside or indoors?

If you’re outdoors, you can tan without tanning lotion, and you’ll get a tan (or burn). But if you’re indoors, you probably will want some sort of tanning accelerator lotion.

This article looks at how tanning lotions work, and when you should use them.

can you tan without tanning lotion


Can You Tan Without Tanning Lotion?

The short answer is “it depends”. If you are using an indoor tanning bed (which in most cases you should not do), then chances are that you do need an indoor tanning lotion.

These lotions are formulated to help you tan evenly in the environment of a tanning bed and to gain a darker color more quickly.

Tanning lotions are usually compounded with the idea of moisturizing and nourishing your skin as well as helping you tan.

This is important in a tanning bed environment, where the intensity of the light is up to six times as powerful as sunlight.

You might need tanning lotion if you have exceptionally fair skin and very much want a little color. In this latter case, use tanning lotion with caution.

One thing to remember is that tanning lotion and sunscreen are not the same things. Tanning lotion helps you brown, sunscreen helps prevent burning.

An important distinction!

One thing to remember is that tanning lotion and sunscreen are not the same thing. Tanning lotion helps you brown, sunscreen helps prevent burning.

Outdoor vs. Indoor Tanning

Sunning on Grass

Tanning outdoors is different from using an indoor tanning bed or sun lamp.

You have much more flexibility in your choice of tanning products. Many of the best tanning oils designed for outdoor use include a broad-spectrum sunscreen as part of the mix (See here for more information on tanning oils).

This makes the process pretty simple: use the single tanning lotion and sunscreen and you’re good to go!

You only need to apply one product to your skin (every two hours, ideally), and it’s all pretty easy.

However, many outdoor tanning lotions do not include any sunscreen.

In many ways, having separate tanning lotions and sunscreen gives a lot more flexibility.

One big concern many consumers are running into now is the question of which sunscreen ingredients are safe. Many tanning lotions with sunscreen as part of the lotions use sunscreens like Avobenzone and Oxybenzone that are absorbed into the skin, and which are now under FDA review for safety.

Yes, we’ve come to the point where now scientists are wondering whether the stuff they’ve been telling us to apply to our skin to protect ourselves from the sun is actually dangerous.


Regardless, if you keep your sunscreen separate, you can choose a safer sunscreen like a Zinc Oxide-based cream to ensure that you’re not absorbing any questionable chemicals.

See our article on the best sunscreens for more information.

Many outdoor tanning lotions do not include any sunscreen.

If you keep the sunscreen separate from the tanning oil, you can also pace your time in the sun for a balance between enough sun for vitamin D formation and enough protection to keep from burning.

This way, you can get the benefits of tanning outdoors, amplified by use of a tanning oil.

But after a short while, you can then apply a safe broad-spectrum sunscreen and keep your skin protected.

Additionally, many tanning oils and lotions are not water-resistant, so you need to remember to reapply them after taking a dip.

Of course, the same is true for some sunscreens, and you should always reapply sunscreen after significant water exposure, even if it is labeled as waterproof.

Your Skin Tone Matters

If you have exceptionally fair skin, tanning can be a challenging process at the best of times.

People who have blond or red hair and blue eyes often have difficulty developing any sort of tan without burning. These people should be careful with their sun exposure, and take their time building a base tan.

However, some people who have darker hair can also have fair skin that can burn just as easily.

As a general rule, the darker your skin, the less likely you are to develop a sunburn. However, people with dark skins can still get a sunburn, and they can develop cancer caused by UV rays.

The sun is both a friend and a potential enemy.

Allergies Can Be a Factor

Not everyone can wear sunscreen or tanning lotion. Some people have allergic reactions to the ingredients. That makes using them a poor choice.

But that doesn’t mean that you cannot have a tan or that you have to stay completely out of the sun.

The key is to be smart about how long you stay in the sun and when you go out to get your daily sunshine.

If you find that you have bad reactions to sunscreens and tanning lotions, be sure to consider a hypoallergenic choice, or even just cover up with clothing and seek shelter — often the best bet!

Vitamin Sunshine

Sun and Sky

Sun is good for you.

Getting a little sun can lift your spirits, brighten your mood, and just incidentally, help your body manufacture Vitamin D and nitric oxide. Many biomarkers are significantly improved with more exposure to sunlight.

The good news for people who have extremely fair skin is that the lighter your skin, the less time you need to spend in the sun to gain sufficient vitamin D.

People with darker skin might need a longer time in the sun to develop the same amount.

No matter who you are or how dark your skin, it is a good idea to use protection from the sun if you must remain out in it for a long while.

When it comes to sunshine, some is good, but too much can really hurt.

Common Sense and the Sun

You don’t have to stay out of the sun if you are allergic to sunscreen or tanning lotion. And you can still get a tan. But here are some things to know:

Staying out in the sun until you burn increases your chances of getting skin cancer.

  • It is better to go out into the sun in the early morning or late afternoon, when its rays are not quite so strong. See this article on the best time to tan for more information.
  • A short time in the sun is usually more than enough to generate Vitamin D.
  • No matter whether you burn easily or not, it is a good idea to wear protective clothing for long-term exposure to the sun.
  • Sun and water create a situation where you are most likely to get a sunburn because the sun reflects off the water.
  • You can get a sunburn in winter, especially if there is a lot of snow around you.

Useful Reference Material

A consortium of health panels including the WHO and the EPA worked together to build the UV Index. The UV Index is an easy-to-understand guide that shows how powerful the sun is in an area. The index is scaled from 0 to 11.

EPA UV Index

To learn how long you should stay in the sun, divide 60 (the number of minutes in an hour) by the index. So, if the index is a 6, the average SED (standard erythemal dose) would be 60 divided by 6, would be ten – the number of minutes that many people would need in the sun to develop a sunburn.

Average, however, is that mythical person that no one seems to know.

Before you go out each day, you should check out the UV Index Forecast for your area in order to determine how much sun there will be, and what precautions you need to take.

If you’re going to be out for a significant amount of time with the UV Index is 3 or higher, you should plan to wear sunscreen, cover up, and/or seek shade.

Sensible Tanning

If you are using a tanning bed to maintain an even tan all over and all year round, then you probably need a tanning lotion. In these situations, tanning lotions help encourage even tanning and moisturize your skin.

As mentioned above, tanning beds are generally not a good choice, and you would be wise to choose a spray tan or high-quality sunless tanner over a tanning bed.

Outdoor tanning can be achieved by spending only a few minutes exposed in the early morning and late evening in the sun. This sort of natural tanning will usually darken the skin on your hands, face, and legs (if you wear shorts or a short skirt).

You can also tan when driving or riding in a passenger vehicle when the sun shines in through the windows.

In fact, you can even get a sunburn, which can look awkward when you have it on only one side of your face!

Being aware of how your skin feels when the sun shines on it is important. If it feels as if it is burning, it just might be!

Sunshine Protection If You Can’t Use Sunscreen or Lotion

The safest sun protection around is to keep to the shade during the sunniest parts of the day and cover up.

Wear a wide-brimmed, shady hat. A loose, long-sleeved white shirt and a skirt or wide-legged pants sometimes will not only keep the sun off but actually, feel cooler than a more revealing costume.

Head underneath a sun shelter, beach umbrella, or any sort of shade when the sun is at its peak.

Additionally, avoid doing yard work or swimming during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest.

Final Thoughts

So, can you tan without lotion? Yes, you can tan without lotion.

The real question is, do you want to? Tanning lotion moisturizes and evens the tone of your tan. These products can help darken the skin and give that sun-dappled look, which is the whole point to tanning!

But remember that many tanning oils and lotions don’t have sunscreen and are not waterproof.

In these cases, you’ll need to add separate sunscreen, and reapply after going in the water.

Be safe, smart, and sensible, and you’ll achieve that luminous skin glow!

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).