Why do we tan?
We’ve all had tan lines or uneven color that we wish we could just wash off. But getting rid of a tan is difficult.
A tan is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the sun’s damaging UV rays. Melanin is the chemical responsible for skin darkening or tanning. Your skin releases melanin under the surface layers of your skin to help absorb UV radiation. The more exposure you to have UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed, the more melanin your body releases, and the darker your skin gets.
The best way to lighten a tan is to avoid getting it in the first place. Protect your skin and prevent unwanted tanning with proper sun protection. Always wear a hat, sun protective clothing, and sunscreen when outside. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen every day to best protect your skin.
Remedies that fade a tan
These remedies can help you fade a tan:
Gently exfoliating with a homemade or store-bought scrub can help lighten the tone of your skin by removing dead skill cells on the surface. Just be careful to avoid the sun once you exfoliate. Dead skin cells can help protect against the sun. Once you remove them, you’re more susceptible to sunburn, tanning, and skin damage.
It turns out this sunburn salve is more than a powerful, anti-inflammatory skin soother. A small study found that aloe vera may suppress the release of melanin and reduce pigmentation.
This bright yellow spice has traditionally been used in India as a skin lightener. While it has not been proven to visibly lighten the skin, one study found that turmeric may help protect against sun damage when included in a cream. The study also found that turmeric may improve the skin’s hydration and natural protective oils.
However, turmeric can stain your face (and just about everything else, including your clothes and counter) yellow. Use face wash or makeup remover immediately after a turmeric mask or topical application to help remove residue and prevent staining.
A small study found that black tea extract can lighten a tan on guinea pigs, but more research needs to be done, especially on how homemade brews or topical products with black tea extracts affect humans.
Many skin-lightening creams and treatments are now available over the counter. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for a skin-lightening product that contains one of the following ingredients:
- vitamin C
- glycolic acid
- a retinoid such as retinol, tretinoin, adapalene gel, or tazarotene
- kojic acid
- azelaic acid
These active ingredients can help lighten an existing tan or dark spots by exfoliating the skin and encouraging new cell growth. Some of them can also help slow the production of melanin to help prevent or reduce dark spots. However, it’s important to use only one product with a single active ingredient at a time to prevent irritation or other side effects.
Many of these treatments should be used only under the supervision of a dermatologist. Irritation or dermatitis can result from using too high of a concentration or too many applications. It can also happen if you use a product on larger areas than it was designed for. Overuse of skin-lightening products can also cause skin atrophy and lead to permanent dark spots or discoloration.
Remedies to avoid
Lemon is one of the most popularly touted home remedies for getting rid of a tan, but it should not be used undiluted on the skin. No research has found that lemon juice or citric acid lightens skin or reduces melanin production. Lemon juice or slices of the lemon itself may help remove dead skin, but it can also be irritating.
Lemon juice should always be diluted and thoroughly washed off if used topically. Going out into the sun with lemon or other citrus juice on your skin, even if you tried to wash it off, can make irritation worse and may even lead to chemical burns. The juice causes a chemical reaction that makes your skin more sensitive to UV light.
Foreign lightening products
Do not buy skin-lightening products from countries outside of the United States. Researchers have found unlisted mercury, steroids, and other harmful ingredients in products from other countries.
Bleaching agents should also never be applied to the skin. That includes household bleach and any other product sold as a “whitening” or “bleaching” product.
The bottom line
The best way to get rid of a tan is to properly protect your skin against UV rays. When it’s too late for floppy hats and sunscreen, there are some treatments that may help reduce the appearance of a tan. Be sure to always spot-test treatments on your inner forearm twice per day for at least two or three days to check for a reaction before applying it anywhere else. Always use treatments as directed. Stop using any product or home remedy immediately if it starts to sting or burn, unless your dermatologist advises you to continue.
No matter what treatment you try, time is the best medicine. A tan fades as you naturally shed sunburned or tanned skin cells and replace them with new, untanned cells. Unfortunately, lightening a tan will not undo skin damage or reduce the risk of developing cancer. A darker tan doesn’t defend against sun damage or future skin cancer. A “base tan” is not a healthy or safe way to protect yourself from harmful UV rays.