For many of us, getting that perfect sun tan, that golden bronze glow, is incredibly difficult. We try and try, but always end up sunburned, unevenly tanned, or otherwise frustrated with the tanning experience. How long does it take to tan in the sun? And how best to go about getting that luminous skin tone?
Often those of us with lighter skin tones are more anxious to get out into the sun than those with darker skin tones, and, well, we have further to go to get that look! And if you’re going to be outdoors for much of the summer, having a base tan can potentially be protective, and will certainly be beautiful.
This article will go over several steps you can follow to achieve that perfect sunkissed radiance.
How Long Does it Take to Tan in the Sun?
It’s hard to say how long it will take for each person to tan, as there are many factors that go into the speed of tanning. And if you’re not careful, that tan goes off the rails, and you’ve got a nasty, painful, unhealthy sunburn. Or worse.
The lighter your skin tone, the less time you want to spend exposed in the sun each day. As you build your base tan, you’ll be able to increase your sun exposure and gradually, your body will darken to a beautiful bronze tone.
For some, getting a tan can take weeks or months of diligent effort, while for those who have naturally darker skin, getting a tan can be accomplished in a few hours, over a couple of days.
How Long Should You Tan for a Day?
Here are some basic general guidelines:
If you have lighter skin, you want to start out tanning in the morning in short increments. Start with 10-15 minutes tanning each day, turning over for even coverage.
After a week or so of this, your body should start to build a base tan. From there, you can increase your exposure time to 15-25 minutes per day for an additional week or so, depending on your body.
Beyond that, you can max out at about 30 minutes of exposure per day.
As always, you should be wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen during this time.
What Factors Go Your Tanning Plan?
Skin Tone and Hue
Those with lighter skin will naturally burn much more quickly than those with darker skin. Lighter-toned people who want to achieve that bronze tanned look have a longer road to travel, and need to be careful and methodical about their tanning. Lighter skinned individuals will often need to tan regularly for weeks, at short intervals, with a hefty sunscreen of SPF50+ in order to start to see much significant bronzing.
If your skin is darker, you may be able to achieve a luscious tan in a fairly short period of time, perhaps a few days of exposure to the sun at 30-45 minutes, with a sunscreen of SPF 30 or so.
Amount of Sun Exposure
If you just go sit out underneath the flaming ball of gas known as the sun without any plan or protection, you’ll eventually get a sunburn, no matter what your skin tone.
Tanning is not the same as direct sun exposure, and there is at least some art and strategy to getting a solid tan.
As I discussed in my article about the best time of day to get a suntan, the current research suggests that it’s best to get your rays in the morning, when you have the fairly mild sun and the human circadian rhythms working together.
Be sensible, and honestly consider your skin tone before you start your tanning session. If you’ve got light skin, start with 15 or so minute exposures, while wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF-30. After a week or two, you can gradually increase your exposure time as you get darker.
Surrounding Climate and Circumstances
Consider the climate where you’ll be tanning and the local environment. We all know that snow reflects sunlight quite strongly, and those who like to ski need to wear sunblock, even when the weather is cold and the sun is weak.
Well, the beach and water can have similar effects. Sand and water are also reflective surfaces and can cause the sunlight to reflect on the body while at the beach or on the water.
You will tan more intensely on a sandy beach than you would in a park with darker grasses.
Additionally, dry climates can quickly remove moisture from the body, so you should be extra cautious to continuously moisturize and hydrate while sunning yourself in dry climates.
If you go to virtually any skin cancer society website, you’ll see that their recommendation is to not tan. At all. Their position is that sun tanning is unsafe, period. Go hide in the dark.
Ok, maybe that’s not fair, but that position ignores a bunch of reality. Being outside is good, and tanning makes many people feel good. When you’re outside, you’re more likely to get exercise, and perhaps socialize. These are all good things for the mind and body, and cannot be ignored solely for skin safety.
However, I want to start out by stating that you should treat your skin responsibly, and not ignore sunblock!
How to Get a Perfect, Luscious, Long-Lasting Tan
Exfoliate the Skin
It’s a great idea to exfoliate the skin a few days before you start your tanning. A good exfoliating treatment will clear off any dead skin cells and help to rejuvenate the skin. Exfoliation is a helpful process, but it can cause the skin to be more fragile in the short term.
Because of this, be sure to give the body a few days to recover from the exfoliation before you head out into the sun.
A great choice for a general exfoliant is Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Exfoliant.
Start with a Shower
Before you head out to do your suntanning each day, start with a shower to clear up and moisturize the skin. You’ll be fully hydrated and feeling good when you head out to the beach.
Also, be sure to grab that water bottle on your way out the door, as you want to ensure that you’re drinking plenty of water while tanning. You’ll likely be sweating, so you want to replace that water!
Use a high-quality moisturizer
One of the best moisturizers on the market is the La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Moisturizer with Sunscreen SPF 15. The Anthelios SX version has Meroxyl (discussed below) but is only available in the US as part of the La Roche Posay Anthelios moisturizer. And it only provides protection of SPF-15. However, it’s a great moisturizer and a good source of Meroxyl.
Use Good Sunblock with Broad Spectrum Protection
It is now understood that both UVB and UVA rays can cause skin damage and can contribute to skin cancer. However, a significant portion of sunscreens in the US don’t have good UVA protection. A Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology study from 2017 found that about 50% of American sunscreens fail to meet the more-stringent European requirements, and the FDA is now in the process of overhauling how it handles sunscreen approval.
The reasons for the US’s lag in sunscreen quality is discussed in this excellent Medium article.
The SPF number identifies only the protection against UVB rays. To identify how well a sunscreen protects against UVA rays, a test called Persistent Pigment Darkening is used to create a classification system for UVA protection.
Once a chemical has both an SPF and a PPD number, a final index is created called PA. It identifies whether a sunscreen covers the broad spectrum or not.
PA Ratings and Sunscreen
The PA classification was invented in Japan and identifies sunscreen protection by summing up both UVA and UVB protection. The scale looks like:
- PA+ provides PPD of 1-4
- PA++ provides PPD of 4-8
- PA+++ provides PPD of 8-16
- PA++++ provides PPD of 16+.
The greater the number of + after the PA number, the higher the protection.
US versus European Sunscreens
In the US, the FDA regulates sunscreen ingredients, and are quite stringent in their requirements. In Europe, sunscreen is regulated as a beauty product and is much less heavily regulated. Paradoxically, the end result is that European sunscreens are much better than US sunscreens, especially when it comes to Full Spectrum UVA protection.
It takes a much longer time to get sunscreens approved in the US, and some of the options still available in the US are pretty old-school.
In Europe, one of the most popular sunscreen chemicals is Ecamsule. This chemical is commonly sold under the trade name Mexoryl.
Unfortunately, Mexoryl is somewhat difficult to come by in the US. However, there are a few products on the market containing Mexoryl. The FDA in the US never approved Ecamsule/Mexoryl as a stand-alone sunscreen, but it was approved several years ago as part of a multi-ingredient formulation. Most of these came in at around SPF15.
There was much hope in the skincare community when these were approved that sunscreens would improve in the United States, but unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. Several of the multi-ingredient formulations (some sold by Kiels, some by Loreal, others by LaRoche-Posay) ended up flopping on the market.
There were a few reasons these sunscreens ended up not being a success on the market. Perhaps the most significant issue is that shortly after these blends were introduced, the American Academy of Dermatologists increased their recommended minimum SPF from 15 to 30. This made several of the blends immediately outdated.
Additionally, a few new American sunscreens and UV Filters came on the market with chemicals like Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide that generally provide an SPF30+ and often full-spectrum UVA protection. These usually don’t result in a white cast to the skin when they were applied.
Mexoryl Products Available in the US
If sunscreen is sold in the US and includes Mexoryl as an ingredient, it is one of the older blends, for better or worse. The La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Moisturizer I mentioned below is one, and if you’re ok with limiting your SPF to 15, it works pretty well. You could add another sunscreen on top of it to provide higher SPF ratings.
But the other sunscreens that advertise Mexoryl, such as Garnier Ombrelle Sunscreen with SPF60 protection, use the old formulation for Mexoryl that is not the same as current Mexoryl blends available in Europe.
However, it’s not super water resistant, and many find that it leaves their skin a bit on the shiny side.
Other High-Quality Sunscreens Available in the US
A few other sunscreens to look at that provide broad-spectrum protection are:
COTZ SPF40 Natural Skin Tone Sunblock provides SPF 40 Protection.
This face and identifies their PA as PA+++. It is a blend of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. COTZ is water resistant for 80 minutes, and goes on with a matte finish and doesn’t leave any white staining. Just be careful not to get it on your clothes!
Unfortunately, Paula’s Choice doesn’t publish their PPD or PA numbers, but this sunscreen does provide broad-spectrum protection. It is primarily a Zinc Oxide-based sunscreen, with antioxidants added for skin care. This sunscreen is quite good, and is slightly tinted.
This sunscreen is also a Zinc Oxide sunblock. It is yet another well-made broad-spectrum sunscreen providing SPF30. The PA numbers are not published for this sunscreen.
EltaMD’s Broad Spectrum Sunscreen is a blend of Zinc Oxide and Octinoxate that provides protection both in the UVA and UVB spectrum (SPF 46).
The PA rating on this sunscreen is PA++++, which is the highest possible rating. It also is a Universal blend which is designed to go on evenly on all skin tones.
When Should You Apply Sunscreen? And How Frequently Should it be Reapplied?
The most important task you can do for your skin is to make putting on sunscreen part of your daily routine in the morning while getting dressed.
Don’t leave your sunscreen with your beach stuff. Leave it in the bathroom next to the toothbrush.
Without fail, put on a layer of sunscreen every day. Do it after you’ve showered before you put your clothes on. That way, you don’t have to worry about getting any stains on your clothes. Assuming you’re not going to be going to the beach or spending the day at a music festival, this is likely enough to get you through a day at the office with incidental walking around outside.
If you’re out at the beach or somewhere you’re exposed to a lot of sun or water, reapply your sunscreen. But at least if you put it on every morning, you can be sure you’ve got a solid layer at the start.
Remember, you will still tan even with sunscreen, and getting that sunscreen on will help protect your skin, keep the wrinkles at bay, and give you a solid, even bronze tone.
Face vs Body Sunscreen
In a pinch, you can use body sunscreen on your face and vice versa. But the face is more sensitive, and the body sunscreen formulations are almost always rougher on the skin. For this reason, it’s best to use a face sunscreen on your face, and a body sunscreen on your body.
And of course, you can use a face sunscreen on your body, but Face sunscreens are much more expensive and you’ll go through them pretty quickly if you’re slathering them all over your body.
Use a Broad Spectrum Lip Balm
Don’t forget those lips! You don’t want to apply regular sunscreen to your lips, because yuck.
Use a lip balm with broad spectrum protection, and you’ll keep your lips luscious and shielded!
Here are a couple of good options for broad-spectrum lip balms:
A good broad-spectrum lip balm with SPF 0f 31. This one is zinc oxide based.
An SPF-30 broad-spectrum lip balm. It uses Avobenzone, Octisalate, and Octocrylene for protection.
Find the Right Tanning Spot
Ok, now that you’ve got your body all set and your sunscreen has been absorbed for at least 15 minutes, it’s time to find the perfect spot for tanning. If you want to try applying a bronzer, now would be the time to do so.
Look for a tanning area that is nicely open, but also provides easy access to shade when you need it. Orient your body to the sun, and don’t forget to turn over every 5 minutes or so to get an even tan. Try to tan as evenly as possible on all sides.
Bring the Shade, and the Shades
If you’re spending a day at the beach, be sure to have some portable shade with you, whether it be a beach umbrella or just a shady spot by a tree. You only want to have direct sun exposure for a short while each day, so if you’re planning on spending time at the beach, most of that time should be spent under shelter.
You’ll probably also want sunglasses as you’re planning to be out in the sun, but remember, sunglasses can result in an uneven tan, as the glasses themselves will absorb significant light. Try to spend some time with your sunglasses off but your eyes closed, so that you can get an even tan across your face.
Apply Sunscreen Again, and Moisturize
Once you’re done your sunbathing for the day, once again apply a strong full-spectrum sunblock to keep your skin healthy. Additionally, applying a good moisturizer as well will provide additional protection and skin benefits after a day of darkening.
After 3-4 hours, any bronzers and tanning lotions should be fully set, and you can wash off the tanning chemicals in the shower and start the process over the next day!