How Does Tanning Oil Work? Is It Bad For Your Skin?

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Tanning oils are designed to accelerate your tan and deepen the color. You get the same tan with less time in the sun or tanning bed. It sounds like the perfect solution: a natural-looking tan with less time exposed to harmful rays.

How Does Tanning Oil Work? Does it have SPF, does it protect the skin, damage the skin, etc? Do you apply it with sunscreen? Before? After? What’s the difference between indoor tanning lotion and outdoor tanning lotion?

There’s lots of confusion here! In this article, we’re going to break it all down for you.

With everyone quite aware of the harmful effects of UV rays from sun exposure and tanning beds, there’s a greater understanding of the importance of protection and using a high SPF when enjoying activities outdoors.

It used to be that people would use baby oil, coconut oil, etc. for tanning. Now tanning oils are the most popular solution to get dark.

Let’s find out why.


UVA vs UVB Rays

First things first. Getting a basic knowledge of what’s actually tanning you will go a long way to understanding how tanning oil works.

UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic energy produced by the sun. It can also come from artificial sources, like lasers, black lights, and tanning beds. There are two types of ultraviolet rays from the sun that reach the earth’s surface: UVA and UVB.

Skin Diagram

In simplest of terms; UVA rays penetrate to the innermost layers of your skin’s epidermis and it’s the UVA rays that tan your skin. It’s the UVB rays that are attributed to sunburn and causing most skin cancers.

That’s not to say UVA rays can’t also cause skin cancer, and can’t burn your skin, but the UVB rays are considered the more harmful of the two and the reason why most sunscreens and SPF are formulated the way that they are.

There’s a lot more to this, and we’ve discussed UVA and UVB in-depth in our article on the benefits of tanning.

Tanning Beds provide different mixtures of UVA and UVB light, depending on if they are bronzing beds or standard tanning beds. Bronzing bulbs provided a deeper tan, but that tan may come more slowly than a standard tanning bed bulb.

Remember that eventually, everyone will reach a certain point where your skin is as dark as it can get, and it will hard to get any darker.

Can you still tan using SPF?

Aussie Gold Dark Tanning Accelerator

Not only is it important to know how tanning oil works, and how SPF works so you understand the big picture, but how they work together in a product that is supposed to both tan and protect you from the sun.

It’s a common misbelief that if you are using sunscreen, suntan lotion, or tanning oil with a decent SPF factor (like Aussie Gold Dark Tanning Accelerator ), that you cannot tan.

You can definitely get a tan with sunscreen on.

How does tanning oil work if you are literally blocking the sun that’s supposed to be tanning you?

SPF, or sun protection factor, only measures the ability to filter out UVB rays, which are (more) related to sunburn and skin cancer.

Whether it’s 15 or 50 SPF, unless it’s labeled a “broad spectrum SPF” which protects you against both UVA and UVB rays, most sunscreen and tanning oils are protecting you against UVB rays only.

This means that you can tan, even if your sun protection product contains SPF.

How Does Tanning Oil Work?

Milennium 100x Tanning Lotion

Tanning oil intensifies your skin’s response to being exposed to the sun’s UV rays to help you develop a deeper and darker tan in a shorter period of time. This minimizes your exposure to the sun.

Tanning oil actually attracts and focuses UV rays onto the skin and accelerates the production of melanin, which gives your skin a darker color.


Different tanning oils can contain ingredients that increase the production of melanin in the body as a reaction to UV radiation, such as beta-carotene.


DHA dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is the active ingredient in a lot of sunless self-tanners and spray tan solutions. It’s the fake tan chemical.

DHA reacts with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan.

This can be helpful, in that your tanning oil is also acting as a sunless tanner, giving you an additional boost over the next week.


Bronzers are chemicals that (near) instantly darken the skin. They give an instant tan, and function as makeup. They will wash off when you rinse your skin and can be thought of as makeup.

Many tanning lotions use bronzers to give that immediate boost.

SPF or Sunscreen

SPF, in varying degrees, is now found in almost all outdoor tanning oils to help lessen the chance of sunburn.

And again, the SPF in tanning oils only protects you against UVB rays.

But most indoor tanning lotions don’t include any SPF. If you want to use indoor tanning lotion outside, you should plan to add sunscreen.

Is Tanning Oil Bad for You?

Tanning oil itself is not bad for you, but using it to tan can be.

The function that melanin serves in the body is to protect you against Ultraviolet rays by producing a brownish pigment (a tan). Your “healthy glow” is your body’s reaction to skin damage.

Think of using tanning oil like lying in the sun and covering your body in a huge magnifying glass.

How bad tanning oil can be will depend on a few factors:

  • Your natural skin tone: the lighter you are, the more at risk you are and the faster you will burn.
  • SPF content: your tanning oil should contain an SPF factor of 15-50.
  • Time spent in the sun: you will burn faster with tanning oil than you would using a sunscreen of the same SPF.
  • Time of day: avoid tanning between 10am and 2pm when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  • Your environment: if you are tanning in a highly reflective area, like on beach sand, near water, or even in the snow, you are concentrating the UV rays even more.

The risks of sun overexposure using tanning oil

While tanning may get you that glow you so desperately want, it can also lead to various types of skin damage including:

  • Premature skin aging – wrinkles and skin with a leathery appearance
  • Sunspots or uneven pigmentation
  • Increased risk of all types of skin cancer

Can you put sunscreen over tanning oil?

You can blend tanning oils and sunscreen, or put tanning oil on and then layer with sunscreen. But be aware that they work at cross purposes, to some degree.

It’s generally better to put sunscreen on after tanning lotion, and be sure to reapply sunscreen regularly.

Even better, cover up.

After you’ve been exposed in the sun for more than 20 or so minutes with tanning oil on, it’s a good idea to cover up and get out of the sun for a while. Give your body a break, and use SPF.

See our outdoor tanning tips for more information.

Take Away

Though using a tanning oil will cut down on the time you need to spend in the sun to get a tan, tanning oil works by intensifying the sun’s UVA rays that are tanning you.

We all know that tanning is dangerous. But it’s possible sunscreens may not be so safe, either. And the benefits of tanning have been consistently downplayed.

Bottom line: you can still burn and you are at risk of skin damage and skin cancer even if using a tanning oil with SPF.

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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).