Coconut oil is popular it many forms—people love to use it for cooking, slathering it on as moisturizer, making natural deodorant, taming fly-away pieces of hair, and using it as a natural makeup remover. Lately, we’ve also been hearing a lot about people using coconut oil while tanning. But since we know that tanning isn’t exactly a recommended component of a healthy lifestyle, this got us thinking—is it ok to tan with coconut oil? Or will this have a negative impact on our health? To get to the bottom of it, we reached out to some experts for their take on the matter. Ahead, five dermatologists help us understand: Is it bad to tan with coconut oil?
Meet the Expert
- Rina Allawh is a board-certified dermatologist at Montgomery Dermatology
- Fran Cook-Bolden is a board-certified dermatologist at Advanced Dermatology PC
- Brendan Camp is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery
- Debra Jaliman is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
- Sara Perkins is a board-certified dermatologist in Yale Medicine's Department of Dermatology and advisor to Hims & Hers.
Is Tanning With Coconut Oil Bad For Your Skin?
If you’ve been slathering on coconut oil to protect your skin while laying out in the sun, you’ll want to really pay attention to this recommendation that dermatologists widely agree on: coconut oil should never be used as a replacement for sunscreen.
“DIY homemade coconut oil sunscreens are increasingly popular on blogs and in social media,” Allawh says. “With a favorable scent and with natural botanical ingredients, these are sought after. However, the reality is coconut oil is not an effective sunscreen and provides poor sun protection.”
Sure, coconut oil gives you some protection from the sun’s UV rays, but it’s a very small amount that likely equates to an SPF 4 (which is not considered powerful enough to protect from sunburn, premature aging, or skin cancer). According to one study, coconut oil blocks somewhere around 20 percent of UV rays. This level of protection isn’t sufficient to prevent a sunburn or other skin changes that can later develop into skin cancer: “I would never approve coconut oil as a tanning lotion,” Jaliman says.
Additionally, coconut oil may even provide a false sense of security when you’re out in the sun. The oil is so hydrating that you may not notice when your skin is dry or burning: “This can actually lead to more time in the sun instead of less,” Cook-Bolden says.
Is It Safe to Tan With Coconut Oil Layered Over Sunscreen?
In short, no—because there's no "safe" or "healthy" way to tan. Whether you’re using coconut oil or not, dermatologists agree that tanning isn’t safe. It may feel good to soak in the sun, and you may like the way your skin glows after tanning, but it’s simply not a good idea, as it proposes a direct threat to your health (and in some cases, to your life):
"UVA and UVB exposure damages the skin, resulting in premature aging and leading to skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States,” Perkins says. “There is no such thing as a healthy or safe tan. Whether your skin darkens or burns, you have accumulated damage."
And if you’re thinking of experimenting with layering coconut oil with another SPF product, dermatologists don’t recommend that either. In order to work effectively, sunscreen ingredients need to absorb into the skin, and a layer of coconut oil could interfere with that process, Camp says.
When it comes to tanning, dermatologists and other health experts want you to remember—there’s no such thing as a healthy tan: “These are words that dermatology residents recite like school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” Camp says.
How to Safely Use Coconut Oil On Your Skin
- Use it as a moisturizer after spending time in the sun: By now you know not to rely on coconut oil to protect your skin from the sun when tanning, but coconut oil can be useful after sun exposure as a moisturizer. It’s full of nourishing fats that keep your skin smooth and hydrated, and works great to add some moisture to your skin after spending too much time outdoors: “Coconut oil helps to retain the moisture content of the skin, as the fats eliminate moisture loss through the pores of the skin,” Jaliman says.
- Use an SPF product that's formulated with coconut oil: If you simply like the scent of coconut or appreciate the moisturizing benefits it offers, you can safely use coconut oil during sun exposure only if it's on the ingredients list in an SPF product.
If you have oily skin, you may want to be careful with using coconut oil as moisturizer, especially on your face. Jaliman explains that coconut oil is highly comedogenic, meaning it can clog your pores. “Although it’s highly moisturizing you want to keep it away from your face if you have acne prone skin,” she says.
How to Properly Use Sunscreen
To keep your skin safe from sunburn, early signs of aging, and skin cancer, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher, water resistant, and protective against both UVA and UVB rays, which you'll often see noted as “broad-spectrum” protection. SPF 30 should block 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays, while higher SPF products block slightly more UVB rays. While no sunscreen blocks all of the sun's rays, you definitely won't find anywhere close to this level of protection with coconut oil.
“It is important to apply one ounce (two tablespoons) 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply it every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating, regardless of the SPF,” Cook-Bolden says.
Jaliman says not using enough sunscreen to cover your skin and failing to reapply sunscreen are the two biggest sunscreen mistakes she sees people make. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests a variety of different sunscreen products to protect your skin. For example, they recommend sunscreen creams for your face and other areas with dry skin, sunscreen gels for hairy areas, and sunscreen sticks for using around your eyes.
Keep in mind that sunscreen alone can’t fully protect your skin—you'll also need to practice other sun safe behaviors, like staying in the shade when the sun is at its strongest, wearing a hat and light layers to cover your skin, and avoiding tanning.
There is no healthy way to tan, but subbing in coconut oil for SPF makes sun exposure even more dangerous. Coconut oil is not an effective sunscreen, and you should stay far away from any online tutorials that suggest DIY sunscreen recipes (whether they call for coconut oil or not). Even if you don't plan to be directly exposed to the sun, you should wear an SPF of at least 30 every single day, and reapply every two hours. Failing to do so can cause premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer—the most common form of cancer in the U.S. The only safe way to use coconut oil as it relates to sun exposure is to use a sunscreen that contains coconut oil, or to use coconut oil as a moisturizer after being exposed to the sun.