How Tanning Oil Works, and the Safest Brands to Buy

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Tanning oil can make you tan faster, but you should choose one with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your skin.
Image Credit: Murat Deniz/iStock/GettyImages

Tanning has become a popular summer pastime, with thousands of products introduced to the market to help promote a darker tan. One of these products is tanning oil. Tanning oil comes in many packagings, fragrances and brand names, but each works by the same basic principles.

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How Does Tanning Oil Work?

Tanning oils work by attracting and focusing the ultraviolet rays of the sun onto the skin. Although the skin receives more than enough UV exposure in most sunny climates to create a tan, the properties of tanning oils speed up the process by intensifying the rays. In other words, tanning oil makes you tan faster.

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As the UV rays penetrate the skin, they accelerate the melanocytes' production of melanin, per Nemours KidsHealth. Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin color. The greater the presence of melanin in the skin, the darker your skin will appear.

Bronzers

Tanning oils may also use bronzers to help accelerate the tanning process. One common bronzer used in tanning oil is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), per the Mayo Clinic. DHA is a colorless natural sugar that chemically reacts with the natural amino acids on the outer layer of your skin. This reaction produces the bronzing color effect, which wears off as the affected skin cell layer naturally dies and peels off.

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Moisturizers

Another important aspect of tanning oils are the moisturizers that are often included as active ingredients. The process of tanning can quickly dehydrate the skin. The addition of moisturizers, such as vitamin E and glycerin, helps protect the skin by keeping in moisture, or by drawing moisture from the air to moisturize the skin.

Is Tanning Oil Safe?

Although more tanning oils are starting to use SPF protection, most still do not provide enough of a barrier against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation, especially UVB radiation. In fact, few tanning oils provide more than an SPF 4 level of protection.

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UV rays have the ability to damage skin cells, which can mutate the cell's structure. These mutations can create a cancerous cell, which can lead to skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays), water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapplying every two hours (or as often as the product's label states) in order to help prevent sunburn, early skin aging and skin cancer.

Try These Tanning Oils

If you choose to use tanning oil, limit your time in the sun, and look for a product that fits the AAD's criteria:

  • Sol de Janeiro Bum Bum Sol Oil SPF 30​ ($38; SolDeJaneiro.com)
  • Supergoop Glow Oil SPF 50​ ($38; Amazon.com)
  • Australian Gold Spray Gel Sunscreen With Instant Bronzer SPF 50​ ($11.49; Amazon.com)
  • Lancaster Sun Beauty Tan Optimizer SPF 30​ ($27.95; Amazon.com)

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