Tanning oils and lotions help to speed the process of tanning, whether indoors or outdoors. Oil applied to the skin accelerates the darkening process that occurs while suntanning and increases melanin production. This causes the skin to darken. Tanning oil is like a magnifying glass on your skin. It will amplify the power of the sun and get you tan more quickly.
How do you use tanning oil, and are these lotions and oils worth using? Are they safe? Will they cause sunburn? What does tanning oil do to the skin?
In this article, I explore all of these questions and consider whether it is wise to tan with tanning oil, both indoors and outdoors.
What Does Tanning Oil Do?
People looking to maximize their tan often wonder what does tanning oil do? Tanning oil increases the rate at which the skin darkens in the presence of sunlight or UV light.
Tanning oils provide the following effects and benefits to those who are tanning:
- Accelerated tanning speed
- Darker overall color
- Balanced, even tanning skin tone (fewer tan lines)
- Moisturization of the skin
Some tanning oils and lotions include additional ingredients like bronzers, tingle activators, and sunscreens that make them more effective in certain situations. I discuss these additional ingredients, and whether they are helpful, below.
How Skin Gets Tanned
Let’s take a quick look at the structure of the skin, which will give a lot of context to this discussion.
The main areas you want to focus on are the following:
- Epidermis – The outermost layer of skin
- Hypodermis – the inner layer of skin
- Stratum Corneum – The outermost layer of the epidermis
- Stratum Basale – The innermost layer of the epidermis
Most of the actions that occur when tanning take place in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. The bottom layer of the epidermis is the Stratum Basale, and that is where the melanocytes are located.
Melanocytes are the cells in the skin that give color to the skin. In the presence of UV radiation, the melanocytes are activated and produce melanin. This causes the skin to turn a dark color.
That’s what we’re going for.
UVB radiation, which is produced by the sun, is harmful to the dermis (the second layer of skin) and is potentially a source of skin cancer. The melanocytes produce more dark melanin when they are exposed to UVB radiation in order to protect the dermis from harm.
A greater portion of melanin in the skin means that less UVB radiation will be able to penetrate into the hypodermis. As Wikipedia puts it, “melanin serves as protection against UV radiation.”
Another important sub-layer of the epidermis is the Stratum Corneum. The Stratum Corneum is the outermost portion of the epidermis and is made up of dead skin cells that gradually shed from the skin. It is these cells that turn a dark color in the presence of DHA, the active chemical found in bronzers and self-tanners.
How Do Tanning Oils Work?
Tanning oils work on the epidermis layer of the skin. Oils and lotions, when applied to the skin, activate the melanocytes and encourage them to produce melanin at a faster rate.
By applying tanning oil to the skin before laying out in the sun, you will speed up the tanning process. You’ll get darker more quickly. You will be amplifying the effect of the sun’s rays on the skin, and producing more melanin.
What Ingredients are in Tanning Oils?
Common ingredients for tanning oils are coffee and nut extracts, moisturizers, caffeine extracts, and various other oils.
Many products include ingredients like:
- Cocoa Butter
- Jojoba Oil
- Aloe Vera
- Caffeine Extracts
- Shea butter
How Do Bronzers Fit Into the Mix?
Some tanning oils and accelerating tanning lotions include other ingredients like bronzers. These bronzers are commonly known as self-tanners or fake tanners. These bronzers include DHA, a substance that causes the outermost layer of skin cells to darken.
Bronzers work in a complementary fashion to tanning oils. This is why many tanning oils include bronzers in the formula. Regardless of whether you’re exposed to UV light, your skin will darken.
What About Sunscreens?
Most tanning oils on the market don’t include sunscreens in the ingredient mix. For this reason, you should usually be coupling your use of a tanning oil with sunscreen. Alternately, choose a tanning oil with sunscreen. See here for a list of the best sunscreens.
I’m going to go over some of the basics how tanning indoors and outdoors impacts the skin, and discuss how sunscreens change that impact.
After that, I’ll discuss how tanning oils play into all of this.
Do You Need Sunscreen for Indoor Tanning?
For the vast majority of people, indoor tanning is a bad idea and should not be done, with or without indoor tanning lotion. With the exception of those who need indoor tanning for medical reasons, tanning booths are a risky, unsafe option to get tan skin.
As Australia’s SunSmart website explained, UV rays found in Solariums [tanning beds] can be up to 6 times as powerful as that of natural sunlight. The mix of UVA and UVB radiation from a tanning bed is not the same as what you find with direct sunlight. Most tanning beds only use UVA radiation. This means none of the benefits of Vitamin D.
So, your best choice is to spray tan instead of using a tanning bed. If you still insist on using a tanning bed, you should be applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen to your body before you tan in a tanning bed.
Do You Need Sunscreen for Outdoor Tanning?
As my article on the benefits of tanning discusses, you should be covering up and using sunscreen when the UV Index gets over 3. If you’re out for a considerable amount of time while the UV Index is over 3, you should probably be using sunscreen.
That said, the best strategy when tanning is to do your tanning early in the morning when the UV Index is relatively low. As the UV Index creeps up, it’s time to cover up and seek shelter from the sun’s rays in the main portion of the day.
What you want to avoid as much as possible is sunburn. Sunburn is damaging to the skin, and appears to be more related to melanoma (the bad skin cancer) than typical tanning is.
The science surrounding sunscreen has been undergoing a significant review over the past several years, and it’s not clear that the recommendation that everyone should be using sunscreen all the time is accurate, healthy, or useful.
However, the biggest concern when tanning outdoors is that you want to avoid sunburn.
Many dermatologists will disagree with the implications of the following statement: a base tan acquired outdoors does provide at least some protection from sunburn (about an SPF of 3). This may not seem like a lot, but it’s not insignificant.
How SPF Works
SPF is a somewhat fuzzy calculation, as different skin tones are impacted by different SPFs in different ways. But the general idea is the following.
Let’s imagine a person who has fair skin. Let’s call her Amy.
Amy gets a sunburn if she spends 20 minutes outside in direct sun from UVB Radiation. If Amy applies an SPF 15 sunscreen, 1/15 of the sunlight will reach her skin. This translates into 300 minutes of protection for Amy (20-minute “baseline” * 15 SPF factor = 300 minutes of protection). She could be outside for 300 minutes, or 5 hours, without sunburn.
Now let’s imagine Amy uses an SPF 50 sunscreen. The math is now 20-minute baseline * SPF 50 = 1000 minutes outside. She could spend 16 hours outside before getting burned.
However, the AAD suggests re-applying sunscreen every 2 hours. The reason stated in that skincancer.org article linked above is “no sunscreen, regardless of strength, should be expected to stay effective longer than two hours without reapplication.”
So what is the point of a high SPF sunscreen if you’re supposed to reapply every 2 hours in the sun?
I don’t know.
Many dermatologists argue that we all use much less sunscreen than we’re supposed to. If we apply 1/2 as much SPF-50 as we’re supposed to, then we’re actually getting an SPF-25 in terms of protection.
This is a reasonable argument. But still.
SPF and Base Tans
Here’s where things start to get iffy. Base tans give an SPF of about 3 when they’re acquired from sunlight outdoors.
Let’s look at how Amy would fare with a base tan. If Amy has a base tan with an SPF 3, she would be able to spend 20-minutes * SPF 3 = 60 minutes outside without sunburn. Naturally fair-skinned Amy can spend a full hour without sunburn. Many people don’t spend more than an hour in the direct sun per day. And this is half the time that most chemical sunscreens are purported to work.
Now let’s imagine a different person, Anna. She has naturally darker skin. She would normally sunburn after 40 minutes without a base tan. With a base tan, she will be able to spend 40- minutes * SPF 3 = 120 minutes outside without sunscreen, without receiving a sunburn.
A base tan for someone with darker skin could be 2 hours of coverage. They’re getting essentially as much protection as if they had used sunscreen.
After all, sunscreens are supposed to be reapplied every 2 hours.
A Quick Note About UVA Radiation
The SPF number only pertains to protection from UVB radiation. It used to be assumed that UVB radiation is the primary vector for cancer. But now we know that UVA radiation is dangerous as well. Only sunscreens labeled “Broad Spectrum” will protect from UVA radiation.
Always use a sunscreen labeled Broad-Spectrum.
What Does This Have to Do With Tanning Oils?
Tanning oils will help to build that base tan, that base SPF3 that will help protect you from sunburn when you’re out for a not terribly long time. You want to be cautious when you get your base tan, and be sure to not spend too much time outside without protection.
You do not want a sunburn. Take your time, and gradually build up your base tan. This will provide a small amount of protection without sunscreen. It will allow you to get those benefits of sunlight like Vitamin D, lower blood pressure, etc.
You probably don’t want to start using tanning oil immediately if you’re tanning from completely pale skin.
How To Tan Outside with Tanning Oil
As I discuss in my article on how to tan outside, Give your skin a few sessions of 15 minutes or so of sun exposure per day to start. Use a broad-spectrum SPF-30 sunscreen after that 15 minute time period, or otherwise cover-up and seek shelter from the sun.
As your skin gets darkened, you can slowly increase the length of tanning. At that point, you can begin to use one of the best outdoor tanning lotions for your skin to push things a bit.
These tanning lotions will speed up the darkening process and will drive your tan to a darker level. Just remember to not push yourself too far, and either choose a tanning oil with SPF included, apply sunscreen, or seek shelter when the timing is appropriate.
Again, do not sunburn.
Over time, you’ll push your skin about as dark as you can get with standard tanning oil. Your base tan is complete, and chances are your glow will be luminous, luxurious, and gorgeous!
If you want to try to take it further, you could try a Tingle Lotion.
How to Tan with a Tingle Lotion
Tingle lotions are special tanning oils that include ingredients that draw blood and oxygen toward the skin. This process activates the melanocytes further and may push the tan level even further.
The tingle name comes from the sensation that occurs when these products are applied. Some feel a tingling sensation that is invigorating.
Others call it a burning sensation, and strongly dislike the feel!
It may be smart to apply a tingle lotion to a small portion of your skin, maybe one arm, and see if the sensation is too strong for you. If you’re ok with it, apply it everywhere. If not, stick to a traditional tanning oil.
Will Tanning Oil Cause Sunburn?
If you’re not cautious with your use of tanning oil, then yes, you can make your sunburn worse! Just as tanning oil amplifies tanning, it will amplify sunburns as well.
Many tanning oils on their own provide no sun protection. If you’re fair-skinned with no base tan, be cautious with tanning oil if you’re not coupling it with sunscreen.
If you were to spend a couple of hours out in the sun with tanning lotion on and no sunscreen… ouch!
Sunburn and skin damage. Avoid this outcome and be smart with your tanning process.
Conclusion: Taking Things Further with Tanning Oil
By using tanning oil, you can really impact the level of your tan, take your base tan to a darker level, and cement the base tan that will provide at least some general sun protection. You really shouldn’t be tanning in tanning beds, but instead, devote your time to your outdoor suntan.
If you have fair skin, you shouldn’t dive right into tanning oil at the start, but instead, build up your tan a bit before you use the tanning oils and lotions.
Keep in mind that most tanning oils don’t include sunscreens, and you should use a broad spectrum SPF30 sunscreen as needed.
Do Not Sunburn. Do Not Sunburn. Do Not Sunburn!
Now that you know all about accelerator tanning lotions and oils, it’s time to find the best tanning oil for your needs.