Using Tanning Bed Lotion in the Sun Is a Terrible Idea—This Is Why

Woman rubbing lotion on her arm

ohlamour studio / Stocksy

If you're after a natural, sun-kissed glow long after the summer fades away, trust us: Tanning bed lotion is not the way to achieve it. It may seem like a good idea, but dermatologists say tanning bed lotion should never be used outdoors. This is mainly because tanning bed lotion is a very different product from SPF, and it won't protect your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays—and protecting your skin from the sun is really, really important.

Dermatologists actually do not recommend tanning under any circumstances, whether you're outside beside a pool or laying in a tanning bed. Simply put, tanning is not healthy. It can speed up signs of aging, lead to skin cancer, and damage your skin, among other problems.

Here's what else you need to know about why using tanning bed lotion outdoors is not ideal, straight from board-certified dermatologists Debra Jaliman, MD, Hadley King, MD, and Todd Minars, MD.

Meet the Expert

  • Debra Jaliman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
  • Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
  • Todd Minars, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

What Is Tanning Bed Lotion?

Tanning bed lotion is a product you can apply to your skin before using a tanning bed. Often, tanning bed lotions are designed to speed up the tanning process, and they usually contain ingredients like vitamins, minerals, aloe vera, and botanical extracts that help moisturize the skin. When people use tanning beds without tanning bed lotion, they often experience dry skin and may end up looking a bit sunburned. “This is simply because you're exposed to primarily concentrated UV rays, and people try to get tan too quickly,” Minars says.

Why You Shouldn't Use Tanning Bed Lotion in the Sun

“Tanning bed lotion should never be used outdoors in the sun,” says Jaliman. It’s important to understand that there are significant differences between tanning bed lotions, which are designed for indoor use, and SPF products that can help protect your skin from damage when outdoors.

Here are a few reasons why tanning bed lotion is one of those things that’s best avoided outdoors, straight from dermatologists:

It Doesn't Protect You From the Sun

You may feel like you’re protecting your skin by slathering on tanning bed lotion before heading out into the sun. But there’s one big problem: Most tanning lotions don’t contain any SPF at all, which leaves your skin at risk for sun damage. SPF sunblock helps protect our skin because it's formulated to block UV rays. But tanning bed lotion doesn’t work the same way: Tanning bed lotion will provide you with no protection outside and will enhance the UV rays,” Minars tells us.

Yes, you read that correctly—tanning lotion enhances UV rays. “Most of the time, tanning bed lotions will not have SPF and if they do, it's minimal to where you couldn't consider it safe,” Minars says. “I don't recommend that anyone uses under SPF 30, and these lotions and bronzers certainly don't deliver that level.”

They Aren't Designed to Be Used Outdoors

Indoor tanning lotions aren’t water resistant and can easily wash away if you sweat or hop in the water at a pool or beach. Tanning lotions might also be greasier than SPF sunscreen products, which can be uncomfortable.  

Tanning Can Speed Up Signs of Aging

“Tanning damages the cells of your skin and speeds up signs of aging,” Jaliman says. On a similar note, you’re more likely to get sunburned when using tanning lotion. Over time, this can increase your chances of encountering medical and aesthetic skin issues, Minars says.

Tanning Can Lead to Skin Cancer

There is a ton of evidence out there showing that tanning causes skin cancer. “We also know the best way to avoid skin cancer and wrinkles is to avoid UV rays and tanning or sunburns. Ipso facto, you should not tan,” Minars says.

Is Regular Tanning Lotion Safer?

In most cases, tanning lotion designed for outdoor use isn’t going to be any safer than tanning bed lotion. “Most dermatologists agree that tanning, in general, is unhealthy and not good for you,” Minars says. If you’re looking for a product that’s safer than tanning lotion, your best option is going to be a sunscreen that contains SPF 30 or higher, according to Jaliman.

Is It Possible To Tan Safely?

You’ve most likely heard this before, but a reminder is always helpful—according to dermatologists, there really is no such thing as a safe way to tan from UVA/UVB rays. “Tanning is a defense mechanism that kicks in when the DNA of your skin cells is getting damaged by UV radiation,” King explains.

Most people get a bit tan just from going about their typical day-day life. “By walking to check the mail, walking to and from errands or work, playing with your dog, or chatting to a neighbor, you're getting sun exposure,” Minars says. “But you need to be smart and wear sunscreen when you are going to be outside for longer than 10 minutes.”

The Final Takeaway

Dermatologists agree: Indoor tanning lotion shouldn’t be used when you’re out in the sun. The main reason to steer clear of tanning bed lotion is that tanning in general just isn’t very healthy. “Sun exposure for the purpose of tanning should be avoided,” Jaliman says. “The best way to tan safely is by using a self-tanner.”

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