Tanning under the sun can feel magical, soaking up the breeze, the sun, and life all around. A golden tan can make you feel better about yourself and brighten your mood. But getting a suntan is potentially quite dangerous, and all of us have heard from Dermatologists and Cancer Societies ringing the bell about the dangers of sun exposure. However, there are real benefits to tanning, and these cannot be ignored completely. If you’re going to go out and tan in the sun, you need to be cautious and respect the sun!
In this article, I’m going to dig into how to tan outside, how to protect the skin as much as possible, and how to enjoy life outside.
The Risks of Tanning Outside
There are clearly significant risks to tanning outside. If your skin is particularly fair and light-hued, then you really should essentially never be outside without sunblock. And even if your skin is fairly dark, you are not protected from the wrinkles, sunspots, and worse.
If you want to follow the official guidance of most US-based dermatologists, you should be always protecting your skin with broad-spectrum high-SPF sunscreen. This will provide the greatest amount of protection from skin cancer.
And of course, young children should never be outside without sunscreen, as their skin is much more fragile than adult skin!
Benefits of Tanning Outside
There is a growing movement arguing that perhaps the position most dermatologists take regarding suntanning is not entirely correct. I take a deep dive into this topic in my article on the benefits of tanning outside.
The short of it is this. Some rogue researchers have found that those with greater amounts of sun exposure have significantly lower rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and other major health issues. Yes, melanoma risk is elevated, but melanoma is relatively rare. If the researchers are correct, and sun exposure does, in fact, reduce risks of diabetes, heart disease, and the like, the net benefit of tanning is enormous!
This is heresy in many quarters, but these researchers have evidence to back up their arguments. And this isn’t the first time that mainstream health advice has undergone significant revision. Consider how the views on high carb foods have changed over the course of the last 10 years.
Of course, these ideas run counter to everything that has been argued by mainstream dermatologists in the US, but Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other places are starting to come around to these arguments and to change their sun exposure recommendations a bit.
After all, from the dawn of humanity to the mid-1950s, there was no such thing as sunscreen. And up until the early 1900s, virtually all people were exposed to sunlight all day, every day.
How To Tan Outside
In this section, I’ll go over the best ways to tan outside. First I’ll discuss the cosmetics and topical applications
1. Check the Sunburn Map for the Day’s UV Index
If you know you’re going to be outside for a significant portion of the day, it’s a great idea to check your area’s UV Index. Sunburnmap is an excellent option, and the EPA also has a pretty good UV Index (but it doesn’t show hourly forecasts). By following the general guidelines presented, you can get a good sense as to how strong the sun will be throughout the day, and how long you can be out with suncream or without.
If you’re going to be outdoors for any length of time when the UV Index will be above 3, you’ll probably want to be wearing sunscreen.
Your Skin Tone Plays A Part
Though the US Dermatology Societies don’t generally agree with this, some dermatology societies in other countries make different recommendations for skin exposure based on skin tone. Those with darker skin will naturally have more protection and will be able to spend more time outdoors without getting a sunburn.
But, if (like me) you’re one of those people who have fair skin, don’t pretend you have olive skin just because you wish you did! Be honest with yourself, and what your skin tone can take in terms of exposure, and try to work with it and nurture it. Better to be patient and get a solid tan over the course of several weeks, as opposed to a silly looking beet-red burn in a couple of days!
Consider the Environment You’ll Be In
If you’re going to be mostly at the beach, or near the ocean, you should keep in mind that the sand and sun are reflective, and can double the UV Index in the local area. Consequently, a time when you’re at the beach while the UV Index is only 3 may translate into an actual UV index of 6.
Take into account your environment when considering your sunscreen strategy.
2. Pack Protective Clothing
When you’re getting prepped to be outside and exposed to the sun, especially if you’re going to the beach, you should be sure to pack some protective clothing. This doesn’t mean a winter coat and ski pants! But it’s a good idea to bring a light, flowy long-sleeved shirt and some clothing to protect the legs, such as a long skirt, sundress, or pants. A wide-brimmed hat is also a must (more on that later).
You don’t need to wear them all the time, but you can choose to wear them in lieu of sunscreen at the beginning or end of the day, and allow your body to get some raw rays without getting over-exposed. There are no potential chemical issues with clothing, and while clothing usually provides only about a UPF of about 5, it’s often super useful for early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
3. Apply Sunscreen
The traditional recommendation among authorities in the United States is to apply sunscreen before going outside at all, and before putting on your tanning oil. If you have concerns about cancer, or even about sunburns, this is the safest course to take.
However, some scientific bodies around the world have revised this position, such as the Australian Society of Dermatologists. Many countries are now suggesting that it is safe to go outside without sunscreen for a time if the UV Index is below 3. These levels often occur in the early morning or later in the afternoon, even in areas that might get to be quite high in the UV Index at midday. This will allow you to get your Vitamin D and decent raw sun exposure without getting blasted with overwhelming sunlight.
As Australia’s skin cancer protection information site SunSmart states, “Sun protection is recommended when UV levels are 3 (Moderate) or higher.”
Again, by checking the Sunburnmap, you can get a good sense of what you’ll be faced with, and what you’ll need for sun protection throughout the day.
If you’re going out in the morning (the best time to tan), you may be able to spend 20 minutes or so on each side without sunscreen, depending on the UV Index. Once the Index creeps above 3, you should be starting to put on sunscreen and to protect yourself. From there, you can spend more time in the sun as needed, or begin to seek shade.
How Much Sunscreen Should You Use?
The general target is about 7 teaspoons of sunscreen (35 ml) for an average-sized person. This is much more sunscreen than most people typically use. Use 1 teaspoon for each arm and leg, one teaspoon for the face and neck, and one teaspoon for the torso and back.
4. Apply Tanning Lotions and Bronzers
Depending on the power of the sun, you can apply your tanning accelerating lotion before or after sunscreen, or not at all. Tanning Lotions will speed up the tanning process and will produce a darker result.
Just be sure that you’re not using tanning accelerator lotions when the UV Index is 4 and you’re not wearing any sunscreen. This is particularly important for those with light-colored skin. The end result will likely be a sunburn!
You’ll be harming your skin, and not getting yourself closer to a tan.
Most tanning lotions recommend application about 15 minutes before sun exposure. Ideally, you should put on the tanning lotion prior to putting on your clothes and swimsuit. These chemicals will occasionally stain clothing, especially light clothing. Most of the time the stains will come out in the wash, but you don’t want to get brown stains all over your bathing suit.
See here for information on what tanning oils do.
5. Put on some Lip Balm
If you want luscious lips, it’s best to protect them from the start by using a lip balm with broad spectrum sun protection. You really don’t want to get sunburned lips, and you probably don’t want to get sunscreen on your lips. Yuck.
Stick with a broad spectrum lip balm with a decent SPF, and if you need to color your lips, use lipstick.
6. Soak up the Rays in the Sun. Glorious!
Finally, start your sunbathing. As mentioned above, the best time to do your sunbathing is in the morning, when the sun’s UV rays are relatively mild, and the body’s circadian rhythms are in sync with the sun. As this helpful article explains, Dr. Aziz Sankar of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and Professor Sarah Graham Kenan from UNC School of Medicine state “Our research would suggest that restricting sunbathing or visits to the tanning booth to morning hours would reduce the risk of skin cancer in humans.”
Go out in the morning if possible. If the UV Index is under 3, get some straight rays to start things off. If you’re just starting out your tanning process, don’t go over about 10 minutes per side, and when you’re done tanning, it’s time to put on a broad-spectrum SPF30+ sunblock.
As you build your base tan, you can stretch that time out to 20 or so minutes per side. If you’re pretty dark, you can probably push it to 30.
As the UV Index gets above 3, it’s time to get the sunblock out. You’ll still tan even with broad-spectrum sunblock on, but it will take longer. You will be protecting your skin, though.
7. Turn Over to Get an Even Tan
Try to keep your body oriented parallel to the sun’s rays so that you’ll tan evenly on all sides. You may need to rotate your towel or chaise lounge in order to keep yourself pointing in the right direction as the sun moves across the sky.
You don’t want to get too much sun exposure on half of your body and have a lopsided tan.
8. Drink Some Water
While you’re sunbathing, you should be drinking water regularly. The sun is hot, and you’re exposing your skin and sweating a lot!
Replenish the water that you’re losing by drinking a good deal of water. This is especially true if you’re tanning somewhere that has frozen fruity drinks, or other alcoholic beverages on order.
I’m not going to say you shouldn’t partake in those beverages (well, maybe not in the morning), but just keep in mind that you should be drinking more water than alcohol while suntanning in these situations! Alcohol will further dehydrate you.
9. Keep your Sunglasses and Some Shade Nearby
Sunglasses are a big help during the tanning session, especially if you’ll be reading or otherwise want to see in the bright sun. But they can heavily impact the tan look on your face, potentially creating really awkward tan lines on the face.
It’s generally best to be gentle with your face and not go overboard with a facial tan, but it’s a good idea to give your face a few minutes of sun without any sunglasses on. Just take a few minutes of quiet time and close your eyes. No phone, no book, just you and the light of the sun. Meditate or otherwise relax for a few minutes in order to ensure your face gets some color, and then put those sunglasses back on.
It’s also a good idea to put on a wide-brimmed hat in order to further shelter your whole face, once you’ve got your sun allotment.
And finally, if you can find a good spot with lots of quality sun exposure, but with shade nearby, that is ideal. Having some easily accessible shade, such as a beach umbrella or sun shelter can be a big help!
10. Rinse Off and Cool Down
If you’re not wearing tanning accelerator lotion, you can likely rinse off or jump in the water at any time once you’re done your sunbathing session. The suntan will be baked in basically immediately, and there’s no real need to wait to cool off.
If you are wearing tanning lotion, you should wait for a couple of hours after tanning to rinse off, as the tanning lotion will continue to be active even after you’re done the tanning session. See here for more information on showering after tanning.
Should you decide you want to take a dip in the ocean or whatever, you can re-apply your tanning oil after a dip in the water.
11. Re-Apply Sun Screen
After you’ve rinsed off, if you’re still out in the sun, it’s time to slather on yet another batch of sunscreen. Even if your sunscreen says it is waterproof, you should still reapply it. The waterproof tests that sunscreens must undergo are not real-world tests. The process of getting in the water, drying off with a towel, etc. will remove even waterproof sunscreen, so go ahead and put more on.
12. Exfoliate the Skin
Once you’re home and the day is through, it’s a great ideal to exfoliate the skin with a gentle exfoliator. This will help improve the skin tone and clear out any dead skin cells. You probably don’t need to do this every day if you’re regularly tanning, but it’s a great idea to do it every few days.
13. Moisturize and Rejuvenate
Once you’ve exfoliated, it’s time to apply some moisturizer to sooth the skin and help the tan set. Use a high-quality moisturizer once you’re out of the sun for the day, and you’ll be ready for that next tanning session in the morning!
How can I tan faster outside?
The best way to tan faster outside is to use an accelerating tanning lotion. These lotions are applied to the skin generally 15 minutes before tanning, and will increase the rate of tanning and the depth of tanning in each session. Some of these lotions also include bronzers, which will further darken the skin.
These tanning accelerator lotions are a big help and cut down on the amount of sun required to get a solid tan.
How long do you have to be outside to get a tan?
This depends on a variety of factors, including your skin shade, the current state of your skin color, the brightness of the sun, whether or not you’re using tanning oils and bronzers, etc.
This article goes in detail on a tanning schedule. It can take weeks or months to build a beautiful, luscious tan, but trying to take shortcuts can do great damage to your skin!
How long do you lay out in the sun?
As a general guide, it’s best to start with short durations in the morning. Aim for 10 minutes or so per side to start with, and gradually increase that time to about 20 minutes as you build your base tan. You can probably max out at about 25-30 minutes.
As always, you should put on sunscreen if the UV Index gets above 3 for any significant period of time.
Can you still get a tan with sunscreen on?
Absolutely! In most cases, you should be wearing sunscreen when you’re outdoors. If you’re outdoors and the UV Index is over 3 for any sustained period of time, you should likely be wearing sunscreen.
You’ll still tan with the sunscreen on, but it will be slower. That’s OK, maybe even good! Your skin will be protected, you’ll be less likely to get wrinkles, and less likely to get cancer. Don’t skip it.
How can I get a darker tan?
The best way to get a darker tan is to use an accelerator tanning lotion, and to stick to a regular schedule. Slowly build up your base tan, and supplement with bronzers and lotions and you’ll arrive at the luscious golden glow in no time.
By using tanning oil, you’ll achieve a darker tan than you might otherwise get, especially if you’re using a bronzer as well.
How can I tan without damaging my skin?
Most dermatologists, at least in the US, would say that you cannot get a tan without damaging your skin. If you want a tanned look without any risk of skin damage, the best bet is to stick to a fake tan/spray on bronzer, and avoid being in the sun without sun protection. Tanning beds are more dangerous than sun exposure. If you’re going to use them, be as efficient as possible.
Some dermatology societies from other countries are laxer in their recommendations and suggest that you can safely get some sun if the UV Index is 3 or below, assuming your skin is not porcelain white.
Does a sunburn turn into a tan?
If you carefully moisturize your skin, drink lots of water, and treat your skin with aloe or other sunburn-treatments, you may have some luck and get your sunburn to turn into a tan. But for the most part, a sunburn will peel and fade, or just fade, rather than turn into a beautiful golden tan.
Even the most diligent among us get a bit of sunburn from time to time, but the idea is to avoid the sunburn as much as possible and aim for the smooth, careful tanning schedule that will produce the most beautiful results.
Conclusion: Get A Tan Outside
Treat your skin with care and perseverance, it will look beautiful, luscious, and sun-kissed. Don’t overdo your tanning sessions, and steadily allow your tan to build up over time, as opposed to trying to knock out a tan in a couple of sessions.
Use sunscreen when the UV Index is over 3, and don’t forget to have protective clothing on hand. Tan in the morning, and be sure to get an even tan by turning over to allow balanced exposure.
Listen to your body, and if you feel like you’re getting over-exposed, seek shade immediately, and reapply sunscreen.
Short of using fake tanners, you can’t cheat your way to a great tan. Be patient and diligent, and you’ll look great in short order.