Last Updated on August 7th, 2019
Millions of people who have acne try to hide it with a tan. Tanning acne-prone skin, however, can cause more problems than it solves.
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Not everyone can get a natural tan by spending time in the sun. If you have very dark skin, a few hours in the sun will never give you a tan and never cause a burn. If you have very fair skin, a few hours in the sun probably will not give you tan, but you will almost certainly get a sunburn. Tanning is only possible on skin that has some brown pigments—but neither too little nor too much.
Even you don’t tan, however, you may get sun spots and freckles. On all but the darkest skin types, the UV-A rays of sunlight cause damage to the skin2 that releases free radicals of oxygen. The melanin pigment that is already in the skin turns browner as it absorbs these free radicals to protect the skin from DNA damage. The more brown pigment you already have in your skin, the more UV-A radiation will give you a tan. UV-A radiation causes an immediate change in the color of your skin, and longer-term damage of your skin.
Sunlight also produces UV-B rays. UV-B radiation causes immediate damage to the skin3.These rays do not have an immediate effect on the color of the skin, but they cause the skin to manufacture new melanin. If you have darker white skin, brown skin, or Asian skin, your tan will just be a deeper a few days after you spend time in the sun. If you have very fair skin, however, your skin will have so few pigment-producing cells that the additional melanin will look like freckles or spots on your skin.
If you tan to hide acne on fair skin, time in the sun will just result in both freckles and acne. If you tan to hide acne on black skin, nothing will be different (unless you are using skin lighteners or benzoyl peroxide, in which case exposure to the sun may cause the formation of black spots on your skin, in addition to any blemishes that may be on your skin). However, if you tan to hide acne on darker white or lighter brown or Asian skin, you may be able to obscure whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples. But you risk permanent skin damage if you do.
Using a tanning bed causes the same kinds of changes to your skin4 as time in the sun. Bronzers and tanning sprays, however, do not.
Bronzers are cosmetics that are used to spread color over the skin. They rinse away the first time the skin is cleansed.
Tanning sprays change the color of the dead skin cells lying on the surface of the skin. These products are made with a chemical called dihydroxyacetic acid. When it combines with the proteins in dead skin cells, it causes a reaction similar to the browning you see on apple slices when they are exposed to the air. The more dead skin that comes in contact with the tanning spray, the darker the skin.
This means that if you have relatively large amounts of dead skin on parts of your face, tanning spray and tanning lotions will make that part of your face darker. Usually you have more dead skin around a pimple. If you apply tanning spray or tanning lotion to your skin without doing exfoliation first, you will have lighter areas of clear skin and darker areas around pimples—making them more noticeable, not less. Or if you treat pimples with any product that contains petrolatum or mineral oil, or you use too much moisturizer, the tanning lotion won’t stick and your pimple will be pinker while the surrounding skin is darker. If you happen to use one of the few products that contain both dihydroxyacetone and another compound called erythrulose5, the effect of the product will build up over several days—which means you may not know you have used too much until it is too late.
There are also tanning accelerators that help you get a sun tan—or burn—faster. These products contain coal tar derivatives known as psoralens6 (and the “natural” sun tan accelerators made with “fuzzy pea” also contain the same chemicals). If tanning causes skin problems for you, tanning accelerators will bring on those problems faster.
Some people try to tan to disguise indented acne scars that cast a shadow across the skin. Darker skin makes the shadow less noticeable. But you don’t have to risk damaging you skin to get the effect you want—just exfoliate excess dead skin, and then apply a sun-less tanning lotion made with dihydroxyacetone in an even layer over your face. It’s best to try to “tan” less at first and make sure you get even color over your skin. But there is a better way to take care of your skin.
Getting a suntan is never good for your skin. A little sun exposure is useful for helping your body make vitamin D, but too much sun exposure only ages your skin. Even worse, the effects of sun are greatest where your skin has been inflamed or irritated. You will get a darker tan where you have pimples on your skin, and it can take as long as several years for those areas of brown discoloration to fade. Going out into the sun and using a tanning bed produce the same problems7.
Using a bronzer is a temporary fix. A liquid bronzer is best on normal or oily skin, so it won’t streak. A dry bronzer is best on dry skin, so it won’t clump. But almost all bronzers tend to make your skin orange.
Sun-less tanning lotions dye dead skin. If you need to do exfoliation, using a tanning lotion is a sure-fire, cosmetically embarrassing way to find out. The tanning lotion that works great for a friend may be a disaster for you, and if you are using any kind of retinoid or vitamin A product on your skin, you will get lighter skin where you are applying the retinoid and darker skin everywhere else.
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