How To Use Tanning Lotion and Sunless Tanner

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Tanning lotions come in different forms and are specifically formulated for different uses. There are three types of tanning lotions:

1.       Outdoor tanning lotion, for tanning in the sun

2.       Indoor tanning lotion, for use in tanning beds and booths

3.       Self-tanning lotion, which does not require the sun or any form of UV rays

There’s a lot of overlap between the three areas, but these general categories are helpful to get oriented.

In this article, we will look at the three types of tanning lotions, how they work, the pros and cons of each, and how to use tanning lotion.


What are tanning lotions? And what’s the difference between them?

Sun Tan Lotion

These are moisturizing lotions with a sun protection factor (SPF) to protect you from the harmful UV rays of the sun.

The lotions that market themselves for ‘tanning’ have a low SPF factor, as opposed to sunscreens, which are essentially the same, but with a much higher SPF.

Here are a few outdoor tanning lotions:

Indoor tanning lotion

These are basically moisturizing lotions to be used before a tanning bed or tanning booth session. They are designed to speed up your tan, have little or no SPF factor, and are supposedly formulated with ingredients that will not do long-term damage to the sunbeds.

Here are a few indoor lotions to check out:

Self-tanning lotions

These are basically a suntan in a bottle. No UV rays required!

There are lots of different varieties of sunless self-tanners on the market, from lotions and mists to foams, mousses, and serums. The active ingredient in most self tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

All self tanners darken your skin by creating a chemical reaction with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan.

There are some DHA-free self-tanners on the market as well, but we’ll get into details about those a little further in.

Here are a few popular selections:

Does tanning lotion make you tan faster?

Outdoor sun tanning lotions will develop a faster tan because they have a low SPF. You will get a tan faster with a 4 SPF than you would with a 45 SPF. You’ll get the benefits of tanning, but you also take higher risks of skin cancer.

This also means that you will burn much more quickly.

As with outdoor tanners, indoor tanners will make you tan faster because they contain moisturizing ingredients (which makes it easier to tan) and they have very little or no SPF.

Self tanners don’t require any UV light and the results of the tanning process vary between different self-tanning products. But generally, it takes about 6 – 10 hours for the tan to start developing.

Is tanning lotion bad for you?

Is sun tanning lotion bad for you:

Sun Bum tanning lotion

Sun tanning lotion is not bad for you, but using it to tan can be if you are not careful. There is no such thing as a safe suntan. How bad tanning lotion while exposed to the sun’s UV rays can be, will depend on quite a few factors:

  • Your natural skin tone: If you are fair-haired and light-skinned, you are more at risk of over-exposure to sun damage.
  • SPF content: most tanning oils/lotions do not have adequate SPF.
  • Time spent in the sun: Using a tanning lotion will reduce the amount of time that you have to tan to achieve a deep color, so granted, it’s not as bad as tanning using nothing at all, but a ‘tanning’ lotion is not what you should be using if you are spending the whole day outside. Short, repeated doses of sun are better!
  • Time of day: avoid tanning between 10am and 2pm when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Tan in the morning if you can.
  • 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 and the time spent in the sun should be minimized.

Is indoor tanning lotion bad for you?

Indoor tanning lotion itself is not bad for you. But indoor tanning is much worse than tanning in the sun. We felt it necessary to enlighten you on a few facts about tanning beds and tanning booths.

It is estimated that 20 minutes on a tanning bed/booth can be equivalent to approximately four hours in the sun.

So if you are looking for the fast track to a tan, you might think this is the answer. What you also need to know is that tanning beds and indoor UV lights also put you on the fast track to getting a sunburn, skin cell damage that can cause early aging, as well as skin cancers.

According to the Indoor tanning Fact Sheet released by the American Academy of Dematology, just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%).

We strongly advise against indoor tanning in a tanning bed. Spray tans, suntans, and sunless tans are all better choices.

Is self-tanning lotion bad for you?

Beauty By Earth Self Tanner

There is no denying that between tanning in the sun, indoor tanning and using a sunless self-tanner, the self-tanner is definitely the safest option of the three. However, self-tanners and their cousins spray tans are not without their drawbacks.

The active ingredient in most self tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It’s been found that the free radicals released by DHA cause oxidative stress that can accelerate skin aging, which translates to fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and sagging. DHA is also lowers Vitamin D levels and has been linked to long term DNA damage. In addition, these side effects will increase with sun exposure during the first couple of days after application (while the chemical reaction is taking place).

With all this talk about the side effects of DHA, we’ve seen the recent introduction of DHA-free self-tanning lotions, so you’d think those would be the safer bet, right?

The active ingredient in DHA-free self-tanners is erythrulose. Well, it turns out that not only is erythrulose very similar in structure to DHA, it triggers the same side effects as DHA.

So DHA free self-tanning lotions are still linked to the same skin aging, DNA damage and lowered vitamin D production as self tanners that contain DHA.

On top of that, DHA-free self-tanners do not work as well as self-tanners with DHA.

How to use tanning lotion

How to use sun tanning lotion

Tanning lotion is one of your best bets for a fast, dark tan from the sun. But we all know that UV exposure is not good for us.

There are a few things you can do to minimize the health risks of sun exposure when using sun tanning lotion:

  • make sure your tanning oil has an SPF of at least 15 (more if you are fair-skinned)
  • change positions frequently so you get an even tan, about every 20 minutes
  • If you are planning to stay in the sun for an extended period of time, switch from the tanning lotion to a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
  • try to avoid the sun at the hottest times of the day – between 10am and 2pm
  • apply a high level SPF sunblock or sunscreen to your lips and ears, which tend to burn more quickly than other parts
  • moisturize! Once you get your tan – don’t forget to moisturize in the following days. It will keep your tan looking better, longer and your skin hydrated.

How to use indoor tanning lotion

Just don’t. Indoor tanning has been proven to be extremely dangerous.

How to use sunless self-tanning lotion

For best results using a sunless self-tanning lotion, start with showering and exfoliating. Removing the topmost layer of dead skin cells will not only create a more even and less patchy tan, but it will make your tan last longer.

Moisturize extra dry areas, like your feet, knees, and elbows so they don’t soak up more self-tanner than other areas.

Make sure your body is dry and free of any lotions or oils.

Use latex gloves or a tanning mitt to apply the self-tanner to avoid staining your palms, fingers, palms, and nails.

Work on one section at a time, applying the tanner in light, long vertical strokes until smooth and even. Be sure to use enough so as not to end up with streaky results.

Wait 20 minutes to get dressed. Wait at least 12 hours to shower or get any areas where you’ve applied the self-tanner wet, this includes using perfumes, moisturizers, creams, etc.

To extend your tan life, moisturize daily.

Just remember, sunless self-tanners do not give you protection from the sun. So make sure you are using a high SPF sunscreen if spending time outdoors.

It is also recommended to avoid the sun for the first couple of days after application while your tan is developing, as sun exposure increases the DHA side effects.

If you must go out, cover up with loose clothing and make sure you are wearing a high SPF sunscreen on your exposed bits.

Take Away

Tanning using a sun tanning lotion should be done in moderation and you should not be using a tanning lotion as a sunscreen because it does not offer adequate protection.

Indoor tanning is not safe and you should avoid it altogether.

Using a self-tanner is a great way to get a quick tan for a special event or holiday. It’s not recommended for long-term, daily use.

Tanning, regardless of how you do it, carries risks and side effects. To minimize them, just follow our advice about how to use tanning lotion, and you’re golden…. Or should we say bronzed 😉

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).