Yes, you can tan even when you are using sunscreen. Though sunscreen’s purpose is to prevent your skin cells from absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun’s rays, it does not offer 100% protection. That means that can and will still be able to tan with sunscreen on but the process does take more time than it would if you had none on at all.  You do need to remember that the sun’s rays can cause serious damage to your skin which can greatly increase your risk of things like burns, premature aging, spots and, worst of all, cancer. That’s why wearing sunscreen is of vital importance every time you know you’re going to be out in the sun.

Wearing Sunscreen Prevents Skin Cancer

They say that getting just five sunburns in your life will double your chances of getting some kind of skin cancer, of which there are several types. That’s a pretty scary statistic. Caught early enough, skin cancer can be treatable. But if it’s not, the results are devastating. For instance melanoma, which is just one of several kinds of skin cancer, was expected to cause 7,650 deaths in 2022 alone, just in the United States. Another 2,000 people may die from basal and squamous cell carcinoma. Many thousands more will be diagnosed with each type.

Staying out of the sun entirely is your best protection against these kinds of skin cancers, but how practical is that? You still want to go outside and enjoy the world. So the best tool we have that allows you to still live your life is sunscreen.

When properly used, sunscreen is able to offer a high degree of protection from the sun’s rays. But you need to make sure it’s quality sunscreen with a high SPF or sun protection factor, to make it worth your while. The minimum SPF you should be using is SPF 30. Anything less than that is not worth your time or your money.

What Are UV Rays?

UV rays are what we call the type of solar radiation that we can absorb from the sun. These are the things that can cause tans and burns but also premature aging and cancer. That’s why you need to make sure you’re protected from both UVA and UVB rays.

UV rays are radiation just like x-rays, gamma rays, and others. When they come into contact with your skin they can cause mutations in some of your skin’s cells. These mutations damage and destroy skin cells as a result. This is what happens when you burn. Your body naturally tries to heal these damaged cells but it can only do so much. Some cells survive and continue to mutate and grow. That is what a cancer cell is, and they can spread if left untreated.

The Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays

UVA rays penetrate deeper into your skin and are also a major factor in the appearance of skin aging. Your skin will look dryer and older because of it, and you may develop more wrinkles or age spots.

The sun’s UVB rays, with their shorter wavelength, don’t go as deep into your skin. However, these are the rays that cause sunburns.

Both UVA and UVB rays are linked with different kinds of skin cancers, so you’ll want to be protected from each when you use sunscreen. For a long while it was believed that UVB rays were dangerous to your skin and most sunblocks were designed only to prevent them from being absorbed.

When you see SPF on a label, it’s only referring to UVB rays. UVA rays are not factored into SPF numbers at all. So how do you prevent exposure to those? You need to look for broad spectrum sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens like zinc or titanium-base formulas are all broad spectrum and can prevent UVA and UVB exposure. But chemical sunscreens, the kind that are just lotions you rub on, are not always this kind. Always check the label on any sunscreen to make sure it says broad spectrum so you know you’re being protected from both sorts of rays.

How You Tan in Sunscreen

Your skin reacts to UV rays with its own natural protection. Because UV radiation damages your cells, your body immediately starts the process of trying to protect you when you’re exposed. This is actually what tanning is. Your skin produces melanin, the pigment that makes the darker tone we know as a tan. The melanin is able to absorb the UV rays to prevent some of the damage they cause.

If you tan for too long, UV rays overwhelm your body’s ability to absorb them and then you burn. If you have naturally pale skin, you likely don’t have the ability to produce nearly as much melanin as you need and the result is you barely tan at all and just burn right away. If you have darker skin then you have naturally occurring melanin already. That means it’s harder for you to tan as well because your skin is already doing a very good job of absorbing the uv rays. It can take you much longer to look even a little bit darker if you have naturally dark skin. That’s a good thing in terms of preventing some UV exposure but not so good for tanning. Also, keep in mind, just because you have darker skin doesn’t mean you are safe from the sun. Skin cancer rates among people with naturally darker skin tones are still very high.

If you want to understand the best ways to tan regardless of your skin type, including what you should avoid, check out our guide on how to tan.

If you want to get some color to your skin while still using sunscreen, your best bet is to follow the directions carefully on the sunscreen. Because you’re going to be absorbing some rays anyway, you’ll still be getting some pigment from your body’s melanin production. It will definitely take longer, but it’s a safer way to do it than using no sunscreen at all. Remember, it can be harder to see the color change until some time after you’ve been exposed to the sun. You’ll need to be patient and, of course, it all depends on how much time you spend in the sun and how intense the rays are that day.

The Bottom Line

Can you tan while wearing sunscreen? Yes! No sunscreen can 100% block the rays of the sun. But it will definitely slow the sun down the sun damage so you’re going to want to exercise patience and some restraint. There is no safe amount of exposure to UV radiation, unfortunately, and it will build up over time. But reducing your risk is always the best course of action no matter what your end goals may be. As always, stay safe and have fun.