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Does Sunscreen Prevent Tanning? FAQs About SPF

Sunscreen helps protect your skin from sun damage, which can cause signs of aging, wrinkles, and skin cancer, but does sunscreen prevent tanning? Let’s dive into some common questions about sunblock, including how it works, what SPF numbers mean, and how to choose the best sunscreen for skin protection.

Sunscreen protects your skin by absorbing or reflecting the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. All sunscreens are labeled with a sun protection factor (SPF) number, which tells you how effective the product is at blocking the rays.

There are two types of UV rays that affect the skin.

  • UVA rays cause premature aging, wrinkles, and age spots.
  • UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn.

SPF ratings relate only to UVB rays, although some sunscreens protect from UVA rays as well.

A product’s SPF lets you compare the level of protection that different sunblocks provide. The higher the number, the more protection the sunscreen offers, although the increase is less significant once the SPF exceeds 50.

So can you get a tan with sunscreen? The short answer is yes. Even sunblock with a high SPF still lets some UV rays through.

SPF numbers indicate how well the product absorbs UV rays.

  • SPF 15 provides 93.3 percent UVB absorption.
  • SPF 30 provides 96.7 percent UVB absorption.
  • SPF 45 provides 97.8 percent UVB absorption.
  • SPF 50 provides 98 percent UVB absorption.

Some people mistakenly believe the SPF tells you how long you can sunbathe without burning, but other factors come into play, too. The length of time you can safely spend in the sun also depends on the strength of the UV rays you’re exposed to. 

UV rays are more intense in the following conditions:

  • Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • On clear days
  • At higher altitudes and closer to the equator
  • When the sun is reflected by snow, water, or sand

If you like to sunbathe, you might be wondering if a product with a higher SPF is the best sunscreen for tanning. 

It’s important to know that a higher SPF doesn’t mean you can stay in the sun longer. All sunscreens, regardless of SPF, must be reapplied at least every two hours, after swimming, and if you’re sweating.

Sunscreen reduces your exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation by absorbing or reflecting the UV rays. Because some rays can still get through, it’s best to use sunscreen with other sun protection strategies. Wear a hat and sunglasses, cover up with clothing, and avoid being in direct sun for long periods of time.

There are two types of sunscreen to choose from. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and are easier to rub into the skin. They can contain one or more active ingredients such as:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate

Mineral sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and deflect UV rays. They contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and may leave a white residue on your skin. They may be a better choice if your skin is sensitive.

Can you still tan with sunscreen on? The short answer is yes because sunscreen can’t stop 100 percent of UV rays.

Tanning is your skin’s response to ultraviolet rays. When skin is exposed to UV radiation, it produces melanin to protect itself from damage. The increased melanin darkens the skin. If exposure continues, the skin eventually burns.

If you’re using a tanning sunscreen to get a sun-kissed glow, take care to avoid getting too much exposure to harmful rays.

Sunscreen reduces the amount of vitamin D your skin produces, but because of the risks of skin cancer, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends getting vitamin D in other ways, such as through foods and supplements.

If you’re concerned about how much vitamin D you’re getting, talk to your health care provider.

Whether you prefer traditional lotions, roll-on sticks, or sprays, here are some things to consider when selecting a sunscreen.

  • Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays.
  • Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks up to 97 percent of harmful UV rays.
  • Consider water-resistant sunscreens even if you aren’t swimming. Sweating can also wash away sunscreen.
  • Check the expiration date to make sure the product still offers full protection.

Here are a few other facts to keep in mind.

  • If you have sensitive skin, try a sunscreen labeled gentle or noncomedogenic or one without para-aminobenzoic acid. 
  • Sprays are easy to apply, but be sure to rub the sunscreen in.
  • Avoid products that combine sunscreen and insect repellent as you may not want to apply repellent as frequently.

Some people wonder if sunblock prevents tanning. All sunscreens let some UV rays through, so tanning is still possible even if you’re wearing sunscreen.

Sunscreen needs to be properly applied for the best results. It’s important to use enough and wait long enough after putting it on before going out in the sun.

Here are some guidelines for applying and reapplying sunscreen. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions as they may be different depending on the product. 

  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen about 30 minutes before going out, so it has enough time to be absorbed by your skin.
  • Use sunscreen even if you’re only going out for a short time.
  • Shake the bottle well. Use about one ounce for your entire body, and apply a generous layer.
  • Cover all exposed parts of your skin, including your neck, shoulders, back, backs of your legs, and feet.
  • Use about half a teaspoon for your face, nose, and ears. Be careful not to get sunscreen in your eyes, and don’t forget a sunscreen lip balm.
  • Reapply sunscreen after swimming or physical activity that makes you sweat.
  • Reapply at least every two hours, more frequently if you’re sweating.
  • Avoid being in the sun continuously, and cool off in the shade. 
  • Remember that water and snow reflect the sun’s rays, increasing your exposure.

Does sunscreen prevent tanning? Not entirely. Since sunscreen can’t filter out 100 percent of UV rays, it’s possible for your skin to darken even when you’re wearing sunblock.

Remember to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30, and reapply at least every two hours. Wear a hat, and avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. By making sunscreen part of your skincare routine, you can keep sunspots and premature aging at bay and help reduce your risk of skin cancer.

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