Here in North America, we’re in the glorious dog days of summer. Summer has always been my absolute favorite season, and when I was younger I spent countless hours lounging in the sun (boy do I regret that now that I’m 40!). Part of the reason that I sought out the sun in my younger years was that it seemed to help my body acne. I noticed that after tanning, the breakouts on my back and butt dried out. Looking back on this acne-clearing tactic I started to wonder, does the sun really clear up breakouts? To find the answer, I conducted and extensive review of reliable sources of information, both online and in print. Here's what I found:
Potential pros of tanning for acne clearing
- While there is broad agreement across the board that tanning does NOT help acne, it can provide a very short term positive impact in the appearance of pimples. Acne is often reddish in color, and when you’re tan, the red stands out less because the surrounding skin turns a darker color. This lends a camouflaging effect to pimples.
- A few sources report that UV rays can kill p. Acnes bacteria, helping to calm existing blemishes. However, there’s no reliable studies or evidence that shows that UV rays have this antibacterial effect, so the jury’s still out on this one.
- Tanning creates cell turnover, otherwise known as peeling or exfoliation (note: this happens because the sun is damaging your skin, so peeling is not a good thing). For some people, exfoliation caused by the sun may help pores to get unplugged. For others, the new dead skin cells created by tanning will just add to the existing clogged material in pores, making pimples worse.
A few of the many cons of tanning for acne clearing
- CANCER. What more do I need to say?! When you’re young it feels like nothing bad can ever happen to you, but when you get beyond that blissfully ignorant stage, you realize that bad stuff can and does happen to everyone. Like skin cancer. Sun exposure is inextricably linked to skin cancer. The more time you spend in the sun, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer. Not worth it.
- Along with sunbathing comes a pore-clogging mix of sweat, oil, and humidity. Anyone who’s dealt with acne knows that humid, sweaty, greasy skin equals massive breakouts. Add to this sludgy brew a dose of sunscreen, which you should always wear, and you’ve got a surefire recipe for pimples to pop up a few days after tanning.
- Prolonged sun exposure doesn’t only increase the risk of skin cancer. It also prematurely ages the skin, causing early wrinkles and sagging skin. Sunlight breaks down the collagen layer of the skin, making skin wrinkle and sag. If you want to be wrinkly even in your middle ages, then go ahead and tan away! But if you don’t want to look 10 years older than you really are, it’s best to limit tanning.
- Dark marks or scars from previous acne blemishes will get darker in the sun. Scars that are already hyperpigmented will continue to create more pigment with exposure to sunlight, and sometimes this darkening effect can be permanent. If you have marks from past breakouts then be careful- tanning will make them even darker.
- Many acne treatments make your skin more prone to sun damage and sunburn. Antibiotics, retinoids, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and benzoyl peroxide can greatly increase your risk of sunburn. If you’re using a topical acne medication then you should greatly reduce or avoid tanning, and be sure to wear a high-SPF sunscreen.
While tanning may provide some marginal short terms benefits for acne, these positive elements are far outweighed by the negative impacts of sun damage. Plus, why resort to a dangerous and unproven clearing method like tanning when there are many safe, effective, and scientifically-proven treatments for acne? Alpha and beta hydroxy acids like salicylic, glycolic, and mandelic acid are great options. Or you could try benzoyl peroxide or retinoids, or talk with your doctor about prescriptions. To fight acne, opt for a safe and proven treatment, not tanning.