Ask an Expert: Is Safe Tanning a Thing?
Every summer, tanning oils with UV protection hit the shelves and I ask myself—is safe tanning really a thing? Really? When we slather on an oil with SPF, are we kidding ourselves, or is it genuinely possible for one product to encourage tanning whilst also protecting our skin?
Skincare brand Alpha-H's new All About SPF campaign aims to clear up confusion around UV protection by sharing important information as well as donating proceeds from its suncare products to skin cancer research at the University of Queensland.
With the research stats ringing in our heads (for e.g., a giant 66% of Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70), we turned to an expert in dermatology, Associate Professor Tarl Prow, to find out if—and how—tanning oils with SPF can exist alongside our enduring summer mantra: Slip, Slop, Slap. Keep reading for an expert’s view on safe tanning!
Byrdie: First things first: is safe tanning—in any way—a legitimate thing?
Associate Professor Tarl Prow: From an academic perspective, we know that exposing the skin to UV light induces DNA damage and the tanning response. The skin normally repairs the DNA damage except when damage exceeds the capacity for repair. There are also people who tan more readily than others based on their genotype. So, it is not unreasonable to hypothesise that in some people, low levels of UV exposure for tanning would be safe. Of course, one dose of UV could be safe for one individual and not for another—it is definitely not a one size fits all equation.
B: If it's difficult to know when a dose of UV is enough for you personally, is it possible to sun yourself safely whilst covered in sunscreen?
TP: This would depend on the individual’s capacity for DNA repair and the amount of DNA damage done during sun exposure. So, a person could lay on the beach with sufficient sunscreen and be perfectly safe. Or they could limit the amount of sun exposure without sunscreen and be safe. It is just difficult for the person to know when enough is enough…
B: Does tanning oil with an SPF factor actually work?
TP: In my opinion, the oil should decrease the amount of light scattered from the skin and the sunscreen will increase light scattering. So they are mechanistically at odds. Technically, both work but the overall outcome is that you would not increase tanning from such a formulation.
B: Women use those oils because they want to tan but is it possible to tan while wearing a sunscreen?
TP: Tanning is a response to UV exposure. So it is possible to tan while wearing sunscreen because some UV exposure will still occur. The key is that lower levels of UV exposure—experienced while wearing sunscreen—will enable DNA repair to occur. Importantly, sunscreen should decrease the chance of sunburn which is a risk factor for skin cancer.
So there you have it: oils with SPF don’t achieve any more of a tan than you would get au naturel, and you definitely can't skip out on wearing sunscreen if you want to keep your skin safe. Our advice? Always apply the highest protection, broad-spectrum sunscreen you can find, and remember to reapply.
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