A bottle of lotion depicts a woman with a deep tan putting on sunscreen.

SPF in Tanning Accelerators: Dangerous Double-Talk

There are some mixed messages regarding sun protection floating around out there, and it’s incredibly frustrating.

A confusing product

As I search for sunscreens online, I see more and more ads on Facebook for products related to sun, fun, and summer living, and tanning accelerators top that list. What’s so strange is that some of these ads actually offer tanning lotions designed to speed up the tanning process, but they also contain sunscreen. How confusing is that?

A search of my own

I wouldn’t have known a product like this existed if I hadn’t seen a customer comment on a Facebook ad. Below a blatantly obvious ad for a dark tanning accelerator, a potential customer remarked, “does this lotion contain sunscreen?” I thought, "right, like that would make any sense at all." That particular product did not contain SPF, according to the page administrator’s reply, but that launched me on a search of my own.

Does suntan lotion protect your skin?

As it turns out, there are several products on the market billed as tanning accelerators offering a finite amount of UV protection. One, in particular, offers an SPF of 4. An SPF this low does not offer adequate protection against sunburns. The Skin Cancer Foundation explains it this way: “...with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.”1 Therefore, it’s clear that an SPF of 4 doesn’t compare to the protection offered by SPF 30 and higher. In order to be fully informed, consumers need to know two things: the definition of SPF and the SPF level recommended by dermatologists.

The importance of SPF

Since I began to take sun safety seriously in 2007, I have kept my dermatologist’s suggestions in mind when buying or using products with sunscreen. With a little research, it is quite simple to find dermatologists’ recommendations. You will see, just as my doctors suggest, that an SPF of at least 30 is preferred.2 From my own experience, lotions and creams over SPF 30 can be thicker and a little more difficult to spread, especially those close to 100. SPF (sun protection factor) measures the degree of protection the user will receive from harmful UVB rays.2 Products containing sunscreen are numbered from around 4 to 100. According to the FDA, the higher the SPF, the greater the protection for the user.3 I prefer to use sunscreens with SPF 50 if I can find them, but I never buy SPF below 30.

Suntan lotion with SPF: an oxymoron

Now, back to the mixed messages with tanning accelerators and sunscreen. Accelerating a tan is never healthy. Tanning has been linked to the development of skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Applying a product to up your chances of having either of these conditions should be the furthest thing from customers’ minds. As far as the minute amount of SPF added by some companies, well, I am just as confused as you. One seems to cancel out the other, right?

Sun even penetrates sunscreen

I will say this as a regular sunscreen user -- the sun does, indeed, penetrate most any sunscreen to a certain degree. Even if I am using an SPF of 30, the sun does manage to reach my skin. If applied appropriately and regularly, the sunscreen will prevent a burn, but it does not stop the sun’s rays from giving you a touch of color. The fact remains that you can actually get some level of tan even when using sunscreen. There is no need to accelerate the process with a product containing a dangerously low level of SPF added for the sake of being able to say it contains sun protection. This false sense of hope offered by some manufacturers is misleading and dangerous.

Lean toward protection and away from acceleration -- you won’t regret it in the long run.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The SkinCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.

Community Poll

When was your last skin check?