Skin Care Myth: Sunscreen will stop you from Tanning

Tanned armImage via Wikipedia
I know I did a recent article on skin care myths (read it here), but I don't know how I forgot to mention this particular myth. In any case I think this warranted a post on its own.

Myth: If I use a suncreen regularly and religiously, I will not tan. 

Fact: This is a very simplistic statement. But before I bust this myth, kindly bear through a science lecture. This is to bring all readers of all backgrounds on the same knowledge level.

Lets define sunscreen (from Wikipedia):  Sunscreen (also commonly known as sunblock or sun cream) is a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product that absorbs or reflects "some" of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation on the skin exposed to sunlight and thus helps protect against sunburn. Sunscreen helps protect only against direct DNA damage as it cannot dissipate UV as harmless heat.

The SPF of a sunscreen is a laboratory measure of the effectiveness of sunscreen — the higher the SPF, the more protection a sunscreen offers against UV-B (the ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn).

Points to be noted MayLord! (Channeling the 80's bollywood court drama)

  • Notice it says "Sunburn" everywhere, not tanning or production of Melanin, 
  • That suncreen helps absorb or reflect "SOME" of the UV rays.  
  • It protects only against "direct" DNA damage
  • Further SPF is a measure of UV - B ray protection. Not UV - A  rays (which are the "tanning rays" or even UV - C rays. The SPF rating, however, offers no data about UVA protection. Some scientists blame the absence of UVA filters in sunscreens for the higher melanoma-risk that was found for sunscreen users. And because UV A rays are not blocked by our atmospheric layer, According to the American Cancer Society, UVA can be up to 1000x more intense than UVB!

Now lets define tanning: Tanning is a natural process, whereby the skin creates the brown-colored pigment called melanin, to protect it against the harmful UV A and UV B rays in sunlight.

Most people's skin darkens when exposed to UV light, giving them more protection when it is needed. This is the physiological purpose of sun tanning. Dark-skinned people, who produce more skin-protecting eumelanin, have a greater protection against sunburn and the development of melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer, as well as other health problems related to exposure to strong solar radiation, including the photodegradation of certain vitamins.

The purpose of melanin is to absorb UV radiation and dissipate the energy as harmless heat, blocking the UV from damaging skin tissue. UVA gives a quick tan that lasts for days by oxidizing melanin that was already present and triggers the release of the melanin from melanocytes.

UVB yields a tan that takes roughly 2 days to develop because it stimulates the body to produce more melanin.

The photochemical properties of melanin make it an excellent photoprotectant. Older and more widespread sunscreen chemicals can not dissipate the energy of the excited state as efficiently as melanin and therefore the penetration of these sunscreen ingredients into the lower layers of the skin may increase the amount of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS), increasing the damage caused.

Therefore Melanin protects against both direct and indirect UV ray damage.

Points to be noted
  • Both UV A and UV B rays cause tanning. 
  • Tanning is the skin's natural response to exposure to UV Rays. 
  • Melanin protects against both direct and indirect damage.
  • Did you know there are rays known as UV - C rays too. I kid you not. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia again

UV C Rays: UVB and UVC  are responsible for the direct DNA damage that leads to skin cancer. UVC rays are the highest energy, most dangerous type of ultraviolet light. Little attention has been given to UVC rays in the past since they are filtered out by the atmosphere.

However with the depleting ozone layer, it is just a million dollar question - How much UV - C are we getting right now?

Ok, now that we are all on the same level with our knowldege, facts and figures, lets discuss this.

Suncreens absorb or block some of UV - B rays, but not all. Further they may have no effect on UV A & UV C Rays. So essentially using a sunscreen will ensure that you don't get sun-burnt (as it is caused by UV - B rays), but tanning is caused by both UV A & UV B. Since a sunscreen blocks only some UV B rays, you will still get tanned as UV A and some UV B will still filter down. Yes, it might be a slightly lighter tan, but not significantly lighter as most of the tanning is caused by UV A Rays. 

Also because sunscreen goes on as a translucent/transparent layer. It will not stop sunlight from hitting your skin.

Still don't believe me? Just look at your hands, feet or body. The only protection against sunlight and UV rays is a physical block. Areas where clothing - even a thin strap covered your skin will not be tanned.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends the use of sunscreens, wearing sun protective clothing and avoiding the sun altogether.

Of course depending on a person's genetic profile, some people can darken quickly and deeply whereas others do not darken much at all. Like I tend to get sun burnt very easily. I get raw, red, inflammed patches, I do tan a little bit, but also lighten very quickly.

Don't get me wrong. I am not asking you to stop using sunscreens. Even I use SPF 15 daily - even though I hardly get any sun.

So the point here is than Sunscreens are useful to prevent sunburn, help reduce your risk of skin cancer and some amount of sun damage. But don't expect them to keep you from tanning or to provide you 100% protection. The purpose of a sunscreen is to prevent sunburn and DNA damage that causes aging and cancer.

Sunscreens are not the end-all and be-all. Don't lull yourself into a false sense of security that just because you have sunscreen on - you are 100% protected and therefore you will not tan. It's NOT OK to stay in the sun for prolonged periods, even if you're slathered in SPF.

Here's what do what I do to prevent tanning: Wear sunglasses, put a floppy hat on your head and wear full-sleeved clothes during the day (or carry a black shawl to cover your arms when wearing short sleeves)
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  1. I wear SPF 50+ (like SPF80 with ultra high UVA protection) and I STILL TAN!

  2. @ Jamilla: In India, a lot of people wear sunscreen because they don't want to Tan. The protection from the harmful rays is an afterthought, an added benefit.

    But sunscreen was never designed to prevent tanning, and it cannot. Tanning occurs the very second sunlight hits the skin. No Sunscreen can deflect 100% of all sun rays.

  3. I have never had issues with me getting tanned. I use sunscreen to prevent my skin from the harmful rays and the damage they might cause to the skin. However I didn't know that sunscreen doesn't prevent tanning.

    Very useful post. Thanks for sharing. :)

  4. @ Rati: the rate and extent of tanning differs for each individual. :D.. I guess yr one of those lucky ppl who don't tan so much.

    Sunscreen is important to prevent skin cell damage and photo-aging and it is good tht u r using it. :D

    Thks for the appreciation :D

  5. 200% agreed, Tanvi! Again, I tan terribly like nobody's business :)

  6. I nvr had much patience with sunscreens...I hate their texture, smell and thickness!!Bt i still always felt guilty about not using sunscreen...not anymore!!...Nice post!

  7. @ Divs: Hey! Thks so much for yr support :D

  8. @ Simran: I too hate sunscreens, be it gel or lotion, so now a days I look for make up with spf, at least tht way i get something on.

  9. useful post.... my tanning has increased.. n it has caused me pigmentation now on hands... not able to wear half sleeves coz of it... :( wht to do... the Dr. is gvng creams n sunscreen... bt results are not upto the mark... wht shud I do.. plz suggest?

    1. Hi Manali, Did you get rid of the pigmentation.

    2. Hi Manali, did you get rid of your pigmentation?

  10. Thank god. I don't want my skin being damaged in the sun but I hate being another pale Asian.

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    1. Did you even read the article? Obviously it will prevent a tan.

  14. I have 2 types of sunscreen:

    1) SPF 50, PA++ (medium protection against UVA)

    2) SPF 30, PA+++ (high protection against UVA)

    Which of them will give me better protection AGAINST tanning ?


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