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The consensus is that, if you eat olive oil, your skin will thank you later. At least, that’s what scientists say.
But what about applying it directly to the skin?
It’s a popular alternative to using other oils while soaking in the sun. Though some people swear by it, experts warn that tanning with any oil is dangerous.
So is olive oil out? Here’s what the experts think.
The short answer: No, tanning isn’t considered safe— no matter if you’re using olive oil or not.
Using any kind of oil to tan increases your risk for skin cancer.
This happens in part due to free radicals.
Milton D. Moore, MD, RPh, a Houston-based board certified dermatologist, notes that free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen and an uneven amount of electrons. They react easily with other molecules and can cause oxidation, or chemical reactions, within the body.
“When UV rays, such as from the sun, hit our skin’s surface, [they] create free radicals,” explains Alexis L. Parcells, MD, a board certified plastic surgeon and skin care specialist and the owner of Parcells Plastic Surgery.
“Over time, these free radicals affect how your DNA replicates and causes mutations or precancerous cells that can turn cancerous.”
There are claims that the polyunsaturated fats in olive oil can neutralize free radicals during the tanning process, thereby preventing them from causing damage to the skin.
Parcells says this claim is unproven, and there are no studies to back it.
According to Parcells, using olive oil on your skin doesn’t help ward off skin cancer and will actually increase your risk for the disease.
The Skin Cancer Foundation agrees, warning that tanning outdoors or in a tanning bed damages cells and increases your risk for:
“There’s no safe way to tan,” Parcells says.
The Skin Cancer Foundation, along with Parcells, advise people not to tan at all.
Though tanning is often considered more aesthetically pleasing than a bright-red sunburn, the truth is that it’s still sun damage.
It can lead to negative effects, including:
Because olive oil attracts UV rays, it can also increase the likelihood you’ll wind up with a sunburn, Moore adds. He also warns that the thickness of olive oil can clog pores, particularly on the face.
Moore also notes that some people don’t like the way olive oil makes their skin smell. Italian food, anyone?
Still, putting olive oil on your skin will cause your skin to tan more quickly than if you simply applied sunscreen or no oil at all.
How does it work? Moore says olive oil, like other oils, attracts UV rays to the skin quickly.
“No matter what kind of oil you put on the skin, most oils are going to speed up the process,” he adds.
Skin benefits of olive oil sans sun
There are some benefits to applying olive oil to your skin when the sun isn’t involved.
On top of that, it can give you softer, smoother skin.
Moore says you might like how olive oil makes you look and feel.
It can “give a nice sheen to the skin because of the polyunsaturated fats,” Moore says.
If you do choose to use olive oil to tan, you’re taking a risk.
Jennelle Kim, DACM, LAc, the founder and lead formulator for JBK Wellness Labs, says you can expect to notice your skin tanning after 30 minutes.
Moore notes you may also start to notice redness around this time. If you notice your skin is getting red, you should get out of the sun as soon as possible. That’s a sign you’re starting to burn.
Sunburns can be painful and take several days to heal. And remember: Even tan skin is damaged skin.
Moore suggests using at least an SPF 30 sunscreen if you’ll be in the sun for any reason.
But Parcells advises against combining chemical-based sunscreen and olive oil.
She says chemical-based sunscreens contain active ingredients, like:
These ingredients need to fully absorb into your skin to be effective.
“Using olive oil can create a barrier on your skin, which would prevent these chemicals from penetrating and working properly,” she says.
Combining mineral sunscreen and olive oil *might* be a safer option, but there’s no evidence to support this.
“Mineral-based sunscreens don’t need to be absorbed,” Parcells says. “They contain ingredients, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which rest on top of your skin and physically deflect the sun’s rays.”
In this case, Parcells notes that “using a little bit of olive oil mixed with your regular moisturizer before slathering on a mineral-based sunscreen may be OK.”
The bottom line
Combining chemical-based sunscreen and olive oil may prevent the chemicals from penetrating your skin and providing sun protection.
Anna Chacon, MD, a board certified dermatologist with My Psoriasis Team, agrees that sitting in the sun with olive oil on your skin is dangerous. But she says you can utilize olive oil to get a truly healthy glow safely.
“It’s important to do self-tanners without sun exposure,” she says.
Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Sunless Tanning Mousse and Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam are popular options, or you can try one of our picks. You can even make your own with the recipes below.
Parcells says that using olive oil after sun exposure may have some benefits.
“It contains antioxidants and fatty acids,” she says. These may help combat:
- skin redness
- other signs of irritation
Though there’s no evidence to back claims that using olive oil to tan neutralizes free radicals, using it after sun exposure may prevent further damage.
Parcells points to a study from 2000 on mice that indicated olive oil applied topically after sun exposure significantly reduced skin tumor growth.
Moore suggests applying a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil on your skin after sun exposure to counteract any dryness the sun may have caused.
“It’s going to provide moisture to the skin,” Moore says. If “your skin flakes or gets dry and irritated… [olive oil] will keep the skin from peeling.”
Moore says coconut oil has a similar consistency and effect on the skin as olive oil. You’ll tan or burn faster if you use it.
But Parcells doesn’t recommend using coconut oil for tanning, because it doesn’t have SPF.
Moore says people can also expect to tan quicker if they put baby oil on their skin, though he notes that some people notice it clogs their pores.
And Parcells advises against using it for tanning at all.
“All oils in their undiluted natural state… lack SPF to protect against damaging UV and UVB rays,” Parcells says. “They may be considered less safe than most tanning oils, as those contain at least some sun protection, even if it’s just SPF 10 or SPF 20.”
The bottom line
Any oil without SPF doesn’t protect against sun damage and cancer.
If you’re going to tan anyway and don’t want to use sunscreen, it’s better to use a tanning oil with some SPF.
Chacon and Parcells agree there are ways to combine olive oil with other ingredients to create the appearance of tan skin without risking sun damage.
These ingredients include:
Carrot juice, iodine, and olive oil solution
- 5 drops of iodine
- 1 tsp. carrot juice
- 5 oz. olive oil
- Mix all ingredients together to create the lotion.
- Apply to your skin, and allow the mixture to soak in.
Olive oil and lemon juice solution
- lemon juice
- olive oil
- Mix ingredients together in a 1-to-1 ratio as desired.
- Apply to your skin, and allow the mixture to soak in.
Chacon says lemon juice can help balance your skin color and create a tan appearance.
However, in some people, lemon juice can contribute to phytophotodermatitis, a reaction that results in blisters.
Always do a small patch test before applying lemon juice to your skin, and talk with your doctor if you have any pre-existing skin conditions.
Coffee grounds and olive oil self-tanner
- 1 cup fresh coffee grounds
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Combine the ingredients in a bowl.
- Let the mixture sit for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Stand in the shower with your clothes off and gently scrub the mixture onto your skin for several minutes. Wear plastic gloves to prevent palm staining.
- Let the mixture sit on your skin for 5 to 10 minutes, then rinse with warm water.
- Repeat two to three times per week for a subtle bronze glow and silky-smooth skin.
Experts say that olive oil may help you tan faster, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
There’s no safe way to tan, nor is there evidence that applying olive oil topically to the skin helps reduce the risks for sun damage, including skin cancer, aging, and burning.
Any oil attracts harmful UV rays to the skin quickly, increasing the chance for sun damage.
Though tanning may be aesthetically pleasing, the healthiest way to get a glow is through self-tanning products or DIY recipes. Experts recommend wearing at least an SPF 30 sunscreen when in the sun.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.