Serious Question: Is There a Tanning Oil That Isn't Bad for Your Skin?

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It's officially summer, which means spiked temps and a dream of sun-kissed skin that mimics a day spent in the French Riviera. Enter tanning oil, a summer staple for many that gives off some serious shine all while delivering the ever-elusive real tan. We know tanning oils work to develop a tan quicker, but it's pretty clear they also contribute to frying your skin. Many would argue that they don't (it has SPF on the label!) or that they're in the clear because they're not making tanning an all-day affair (it'll only be an hour!). Then there's the idea of combining tanning oil with an SPF to make it "safer." Repeat after me: All unprotected sun exposure is bad sun exposure.

To get to the bottom of this and provide real evidence as to why there is no such thing as a "safe" tanning oil, we tapped two skincare pros to give it to us straight: New York-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman and Richard Bottiglione of Alliance Dermatology.

Meet the Expert

  • Debra Jaliman is a New York-based board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
  • Richard Bottiglione is an Arizona-based board-certified dermatologist and specializes in MOHS Skin Cancer Surgery

Read on to find out everything you need to know about tanning oils.

How Tanning Oil Works

If patience is a virtue you lack, you're likely a user of tanning oil. "People use tanning oil to speed up the process of tanning when they are out in the sun," says Jaliman. "Tanning oils attract more of the UV rays and help you achieve a deeper tan by allowing for an increase in the absorption of the rays." Some oils—like olive, sunflower, and coconut—might contribute to a deeper tan when used in their natural state, but of course, these lack SPF protection. According to Jaliman, when you apply a layer of tanning oil to your skin, it lowers the refractive index of your skin and allows for more of the rays to penetrate. The result is a nice looking tan, sure, but how healthy the process is for your skin is a different story.

Is Tanning Oil Safe?

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but while many tanning oils contain SPF, they're really not made to protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. "Tanning oils contain very little SPF compared to a product labeled as a sunscreen lotion, which actually provides protection from the sun’s rays," says Jaliman. "A tanning oil usually will not provide an SPF that is worthy of calling it sun protection—you'll find most tanning oils with a SPF of 15 or less." Bottiglione agrees, adding that "tanning oils do not protect your skin, rather they can make the skin more receptive to sun damage because of the increased exposure." Bottom line: Without enough SPF protection, your skin is not protected from harmful sun exposure.

This bodes the question: Will layering a tanning oil with sunblock improve its safety? We'll give you points for being clever, but this could actually backfire. Turns out that the oils found in the tanning product, when combined with sunblock, might make the SPF ineffective, leaving the skin at risk for sun damage.

Tanning Oil Risks

Our experts agree that tanning oil can pose some serious risks to the skin. The implication with tanning oil is that you're using it as an accessory to laying out in the sun which, in and of itself, can be ultra-damaging to the skin. "Sun damage is cumulative—even ten minutes of exposure a day over the course of a lifetime is enough to cause major problems and age your skin drastically," explains Jaliman. "So when you lay out in the sun to tan, you are putting yourself at risk of sun damage and that [includes] wrinkles, age and dark spots (skin discoloration), and skin cancer."

If you do find yourself with sun damage, Bottiglione recommends using an anti-aging cream with glycolic acid, such as the Dermatologist's Choice Ultra Anti-Aging Cream ($75) to help to regenerate the skin, rebuild the collagen, and exfoliate the top layer which removes the sun-damaged skin.

How to Tan Safely

We're big fans of faking our tans, whether it be through self-tanners or body bronzers. But if you have to be in the sun, Jaliman advises to use an SPF of at least 30. "People should keep in mind that darkening of the skin is ultimately caused by increased melanin pigment formation that results from damage to the skin caused by those pesky UV rays (when out in the sun)."

Also, both experts recommend regularly assessing your skin for any uncharacteristic changes. Bottiglione notes that damage to the skin rears its head as a sunburn at first, but it can then can lead to irritated skin and over time, wrinkles. He says to look in the mirror for abnormal dark spots, noting that while "most dark spots are genetic," they can "increase because of sun exposure. Also, if you notice a mole, or a spot continues to change color or bleed, consult a doctor."

The Final Takeaway

When our skin is exposed to the sun, our goal should be to repel the UV rays, not attract them to the skin. This means nixing tanning oil once and for all. Thankfully, while tanning oils can cause serious skin damage, they're not the be-all end-all to bronzed skin. There are ways to achieve a golden look—the safe way.

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