Sunscreen may prevent tanning to some degree, but it is still possible to get a slight tan. There is no such thing as a “safe tan.”

Dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen every single day — and for good reason. Wearing a chemical- or physical-based sunscreen may help prevent the sun’s rays from causing photoaging and skin cancer.

It may still be possible to get a slight tan, even if you do wear sunscreen. However, no amount of deliberate tanning is considered safe.

Learn more about how sunscreen protects your skin, including its limitations, as well as other factors to consider about the sun and your skin health.

Sunscreen works in two ways: chemical and physical.

Chemical-based sunscreen

Popular chemical-based sunscreens work by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) rays and altering them before they have a chance to cause any damage. Examples of chemical-based sunscreens include oxybenzone and octisalate.

Physical-based sunscreen

Physical-based versions, on the other hand, reflect and scatter UV rays away from your skin. Zinc and titanium oxides are two examples of blocking agents used in physical sunscreen. These ingredients were recently designated as GRASE, or generally recognized as safe and effective, by the Food the Drug Administration (FDA).

UV rays

Perhaps more important than choosing between chemical and physical sunscreens is looking for one that is broad spectrum, or protects against the two damaging types of UV rays. These are called ultraviolet (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.

You may also consider wearing water-resistant sunscreen, especially when doing certain activities that get you wet from either water or perspiration (sweat). This helps keep the product from dissolving off your skin and leaving it exposed to UV damage.

How tanning works

Still, it’s important to remember that sunscreen acts as a filter. It can’t prevent your skin’s exposure to the sun 100%. So, you can still tan at some level.

In the short term, your skin responds to sun exposure by becoming inflamed. As a result of sunburn, your skin adapts by tanning. The more prolonged your exposure, the more severe a burn may be.

Tanned skin is also the result of melanin released in the affected area.

Long-term effects of UV exposure include cancer and premature photoaging. Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with the right SPF can help minimize this type of damage.

Wearing sun protection factor (SPF) 15 sunscreen may reduce your risk of melanoma skin cancers by up to 50%, as well as squamous cell carcinoma, a non-melanoma skin cancer, by 40%.

A broad-spectrum sunscreen means the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are longer and can cause skin damage including wrinkles. UVB rays consist of shorter wavelengths that can cause burns and are believed to cause most skin cancers.

Wearing sunscreen not only protects against direct UV exposure incurred during outdoor activities but also protects your skin from day-to-day exposure. This includes driving, walking to your place of work or a class, and going to the park.

Left unprotected, even seemingly small amounts of sun exposure can add up over time. At minimum, you should wear a moisturizer with SPF on your face, neck, and chest every single day.

Each sunscreen contains an SPF. The ideal SPF in a sunscreen depends on your exposure level to the sun. Everyday sunscreens may contain a lower SPF, but direct exposure to the sun requires a higher SPF.

It’s first important to understand what SPF numbers mean. They refer to the time it would take for your skin to burn without wearing sunscreen, rather than offering a specific level of protection.

So, for example, an SPF of 30 means your skin could take 30 times longer to burn than it would if it were left unprotected. This is only true, though, if you apply it correctly in the right amount.

An SPF also means that a certain percentage of skin-aging UVB rays are still allowed to penetrate the skin.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 3% of UVB rays can enter your skin with SPF 30, and 2% with SPF 50. This is also how you can still get tan while wearing sunscreen.

For the best protection, it’s recommended that you choose a water-resistant sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 or higher every day.

If you’re going to be in direct sunlight for extended periods of time, such as when swimming or playing sports, you may want to use a higher SPF, such as SPF 50 or SPF 100, and reapply it frequently.

There are some cases where a higher SPF may be needed, such as if you have a history of skin cancer, albinism, or immune disorders that make you burn easily.

You can also talk with a dermatologist about the exact SPF you should be using. They may even recommend adjusting SPF for certain times of the year, as well as your location. Higher altitudes can put you at a greater risk of UV exposure, as can locations closer to the equator.

It’s important to see a dermatologist every year for a skin check. You may need to see them more often if you have a recent history of skin cancer or have frequently tanned in the past.

See a dermatologist right away if you have an unusual skin lesion. Any moles or bumps that show signs of growth, changes in color, bleeding, or itching may warrant a biopsy. The sooner a dermatologist detects skin cancer, the better the treatment outcome.

Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer. Tanning — with or without sunscreen — can increase your risk. Early detection may decrease the risk of death.

Will sunscreen prevent you from tanning?

Sunscreen doesn’t fully protect your skin against UV rays, so sunscreen may not fully prevent tanning either.

This makes other protective measures such as hats and clothing important additions to your overall sun safety plan, as well as reapplying your sunscreen at least every 2 hours.

Is it possible to tan safely?

No amount of tanning is considered “safe.” The more you tan outdoors or indoors, the higher at risk you may be for developing skin cancer and other skin health concerns. Experts recommend that you wear SPF 30 sunscreen every day.

If you’re still wanting to have a tanned appearance but without the danger of unprotected sun exposure, you may consider trying sunless tanning or bronzing products.

Can sunscreen inhibit vitamin D intake?

Yes — sunscreen may decrease the amount of vitamin D you might absorb naturally from the sun’s rays. However, instead of tanning, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends getting vitamin D from your diet. Fish, egg yolks, fortified juices, and milk are all good sources.

If you are concerned that you aren’t getting enough vitamin D in your diet, consider talking with a healthcare professional about possible supplementation.

Wearing sunscreen can prevent some of the skin inflammation that leads to tanning, but this shouldn’t be your main concern when it comes to UV rays.

Wearing it every day is essential to help protect your skin against burns, aging, and cancer. Be sure to reapply every 2 hours, as well as after sweating and swimming.

You can also take other preventive measures, like using protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses. Avoiding peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. may also help minimize exposure.

Tanning beds are not safe alternatives to sunbathing and should be avoided.