Think you know how to get a sun tan? It is important to understand how to tan properly in order to ensure you’re not putting yourself at risk of sunburns, skin cancer, and premature skin aging. You can still achieve that beautiful, golden tan everyone loves with only a little bit of preparation. To that end, we’ve created this simple guide to show you the steps. 

Preparing Your Skin

The ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun cause damage to your skin. In direct sunlight these rays are penetrating your skin and causing a reaction in cells called melanocytes. These cells produce the pigment known as melanin which is your body’s natural defense against sun exposure. Your cells are trying to limit the damage the UV rays are causing. The longer this process goes, the darker your skin will get. At some point, however, you can burn and cause damage. You’ll want to prepare your skin to lower that risk.


To maximize your ability to safely tan you should prepare before you even get into the sun. You’ll want to exfoliate a day or two in advance for best results. Use an exfoliant cleanser or loofah to help get the dead skin sloughed off of your body. Try to use exfoliating cleansers made with things like crushed nut shells rather than microbeads which are bad for the environment.

You’ll want to exfoliate at least a day in advance to prevent your skin from drying out in the sun. It may also burn faster if you try to tan right after exfoliation. However, with enough prep time, exfoliated skin will tan more evenly and you’ll get a nicer, richer color. You’ll suffer less dry skin and a lower chance of peeling or flaking.

Check Your Local UV Index

In the height of summer, the sun’s UV rays can be extremely powerful. You may tan, or even burn, much faster on some days than others. You can find the UV Index or your area in most weather reports, on a weather app, or with a simple Google search of where you plan to be. 

The UV Index gives you a numerical rating and a color rating for the intensity of the sun’s rays. The higher the number, the more intense the sun. Anything above 3 on the UV index could potentially cause harm so you’ll want to prepare by putting on sunscreen before you head out.

Natural Tanning in the Sun

Tanning the natural way in the sun is the most popular way to get a tan. If the weather is in your favor, it shouldn’t be too difficult, either. To make the most of getting a natural suntan, follow these steps

Apply Sunscreen

Sunscreen should be applied before you leave the house and enter the sun. This gives it a chance to work and set up a protective barrier. The CDC recommends you apply sunscreen 20 minutes before entering the sun so it is able to fully protect you when the time comes. 

You need to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. If the sunscreen doesn’t specify this, you will only be protected against UVB rays.

Any sunscreen used these days should be SPF 30 or above. Lower SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreens are available but they are not recommended and are not effective enough to protect your skin. At SPF 30 you can be protected from the sun’s dangerous rays but the protection is not enough to prevent you from being able to tan. It strikes a nice balance.

Even though you are trying to get a tan, you want to avoid a burn. Sunscreen can help you tan at a manageable pace without burning and lowering the risk of various cancers. That said, if you use a very strong sunscreen, like SPF 100, you’ll have a much harder time getting a tan.

Change Positions

We’ve all seen pictures of someone who fell asleep in the sun and got a burn on half their face, or they had a hand on their chest and now have a white handprint. You don’t want that.

Change your position in the sun regularly. Moving every 15 minutes or so as you try to tan ensures even coverage. This will help limit unwanted color variations and or burns on areas that stayed exposed for too long. 

Reapply Sunscreen

Check the label on your sunscreen to see how long is needed before reapplication. Most require it after two hours in the sun. Sooner if you have been working up a sweat or swimming. You want to keep even coverage of sunscreen the whole time you are in the sun. This will ensure an even tan and prevent the chance of burns.

Don’t forget those overlooked spots if you’re out in the sun for a long time. Many people neglect the tops and bottoms of their feet, under their arms and down their sides, the back of their necks and their ears. Also, if you have thinning hair or are bald, you’ll want to make sure your head is getting protected as well. If you don’t want to put sunscreen on your scalp, use a hat.

Pick the Right Time of Day

The sun will be at its most potent between noon and 3 pm. On a clear day in mid-July you can get a severe burn if you’re not careful. If you want to get a slow, manageable tan, consider heading out before or after those hours. If you are in the sun during those hours, be cautious and aware of how much exposure you’re getting.

Stay Hydrated

Laying out in the sun can dehydrate you very quickly on a hot day. Make sure you have access to water and drink regularly. Your skin can dry and crack when you become dehydrated and make a burn even worse. 

Watch the Clock

Your skin burns in the sun when you outpace your body’s ability to create melanin. For very pale-skinned people, this happens incredibly fast. You need to know how long you can tolerate the sun, even with sunscreen on. 

At some point your body simply cannot create more melanin and you will not tan at all any longer. When this happens, all that’s left is to burn. For the average person with light to medium skin, this may occur in about two or three hours. If you have very pale skin it happens faster and if you have darker skin you’ll get more time. Plan accordingly and don’t overdo it.

Tanning in a Tanning Bed

Tanning beds are often looked at as an alternative to natural tanning. The UV radiation exposure is often 3-5 times higher than peak sunshine, increasing your risk of skin damage and potential cancers. Also, many people who use tanning beds do not use sunscreen and may actually use oils to enhance their tan, causing further damage. For that reason we do not recommend tanning in a tanning bed at all. 

Spray Tanning

For those who want much less risk, spray tanning is an option for the color without the sun exposure. Spray tans use a compound called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with the amino acids in your skin to produce a temporary artificial tan.

A spray tan can provide an even, uniform tan that lasts for over a week. However, improper application or too frequent spray tanning is known to cause people to have that “fake tan” look. It’s best to try a test tan with a low DHA concentration before committing to something stronger just to see how your skin reacts.

Caring For Your Tanned Skin

To enjoy the benefits of your new sun tan you’ll want to make sure you do some aftercare. This can ensure you have the look you want and avoid things like flaking or patchy skin. 

  • Rinse: When you come out of the sun, have a gentle rinse in a cool shower and pat your skin dry. Start the process of moisturizing right away. 
  • Hydrate and Moisturize: Over the next few days, make sure you’re drinking water to keep your skin moist and supple. Use a gentle moisturizer as well so your skin doesn’t dry out and flake off. The more sun exposure you get, especially if you burn, the more likely you are to suffer from peeling skin.
  • Sunscreen: If you achieve the perfect tan you need to keep it safe. Keep using sunscreen because any additional sun exposure, even just from going about your business day to day, will only increase and deepen your tan. This can make it darker or upgrade it to a burn.

Sun Tan Tips

We’ve established the basic rules for getting a safe tan above. There are some tips you can follow to help get the best possible tan while keeping you safe and healthy at the same time.

  • Avoid alcohol: A fun day at the beach or poolside can include alcoholic beverages. However, if you are trying to get a tan as your main goal, consider sticking to just water. Alcohol can dehydrate you very quickly which can lead to drying and peeling skin.
  • Wear sunglasses: Sunglasses won’t affect your tan but can increase your overall health and safety, not to mention making it easier to see. The sun’s rays damage your eyes as much as your skin and since you can’t put sunscreen in your eyes, use polarized sunglasses to keep them safe, too.
  • Remember your lips: Too many people forget their lips when tanning. A hat protects your head, glasses get your eyes and sunscreen protects the rest of your body except your lips. Invest in some SPF 30 lip balm and apply it at the same time as your sunscreen.
  • Take breaks: Some people find that tanning works best if you do it in shifts. After 30 minutes in the sun, head to the shade for at least 10 minutes. This lets your skin cool down while you continue to produce melanin. You’ll often find your skin darkens up significantly when you’re in the shade and you may not want to or need to return to the sun after a while. 
  • Tweak your diet: Some foods may help protect you while tanning. Research has suggested that foods rich in lycopene (which includes watermelon and tomato) can protect your skin from UV rays. Also, foods rich in beta-carotene (carrots, spinach, kale and other intensely-colored vegetables) may assist in you skin’s ability to tan without burning.

The Bottom Line

Tanning can be dangerous considering that any sun exposure puts you in the path of UV radiation. You’ll want to minimize the damage as much as you can and that means using sunscreen whenever you are out in the sun. Sunscreen aids your body’s natural sun protection, melanin, and the two combined can protect you from serious burns while still allowing you to enjoy a golden tan if that’s what you want.

Make sure you use the right protection, apply it everywhere, and take care of your skin both before and after sun exposure to get the most out of a safe and healthy tan.