Suntan Lotion versus Sunscreen

Sunscreen Basics

A low SPF sunscreen can lead to a sunburn.
A sunscreen with a low SPF does not provide enough sun protection and could lead to a bad sunburn. Photo by Ralf Nau/Getty Images

What is the difference between suntan lotion and sunscreen? Can I use my suntan lotion on my kids?

For proper sun protection, parents should apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to 30 whenever their kids will be out in the sun.

Suntan Lotion

You won't find any products claiming to be suntan lotions anymore. Instead, a product that is considered to be a suntan lotion is usually a sunscreen with an SPF of less than 15.

These 'tanning' sunscreens, which typically have an SPF 4 to SPF 8, do not provide enough sun protection, especially for kids.

Some dark tanning oils do not even contain any sunscreen ingredients and may even include a tanning accelerator.

Suntan lotion products and tanning oils include:

  • Bain de Soleil Mega Tan Sunscreen With Self Tanner, SPF 4
  • Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 4
  • Banana Boat Dark Tanning Oil Spray (Contains No Sunscreen)
  • Banana Boat UltraMist Continuous Spray Sunscreen, Deep Tanning Dry Oil, SPF 8
  • Hawaiian Tropic Dry Oil Clear Spray Sunscreen, SPF 6
  • Panama Jack Trophy Oil, Full Sun Continuous Oil Spray (Contains No Sunscreen)

Suntan Lotion versus Sunscreen

Since they don't provide enough sun protection, instead of a suntan lotion or tanning oil, kids should only use a sunscreen that provides broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection and:

  • has an SPF of at least 15 to 30. You could go for a higher SPF, but most experts believe that they don't provide that much extra protection. Some experts go as far as to say the SPF rating should be capped at SPF 30, which provides protection against 97 percent of UVB rays. Using a high SPF sunscreen might provide more protection for those parents who don't use enough sunscreen and don't reapply it often enough though.
  • is water resistant. Even if you aren't going swimming, if your child is outside, he will likely be sweating, so a water resistant sunscreen might provide better protection than a regular sunscreen.
  • is hypoallergenic and fragrance free, especially if your child has sensitive skin.
  • is in a form that is easy to use on your child, whether that means it is a stick, gel, lotion, spray, or continuous spray, etc.

    Are your kids protected from the sun?

    What if they still want a tan?

    Sunless Tanning

    Sunless tanning, including the use of spray tanning lotions and airbrush tanning, is becoming popular as people become more aware of the dangers of tanning outside and the use of indoor tanning salons.

    According to the FDA, products that are marketed as sunless tanners, which provide a tanned appearance without exposure to UV rays, work by darkening the skin with ingredients like dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It is approved for use in cosmetics that are externally applied to the skin, except for the areas around the eyes and lips.

    The use of dihydroxyacetone or DHA in misting or airbrush tanning booths, however, is not approved by the FDA.

    Is sunless tanning safe for kids? Airbrush tanning should likely be avoided, since it is not approved and the FDA has received reports of adverse events from people, including symptoms such as coughing, dizziness, and fainting.

    Spray tanning lotions are usually thought to be a safe alternative to tanning, although the age that you can start using them isn't very clear. While it is likely fine for teens, especially those that would otherwise be using a tanning booth, it is important they also remember to use a sunscreen, as most sunless tanning products don't provide good sun protection.

    The other problem with sunless tanning is that it might get your teen used to having a tan and later moving to a tanning bed or trying to get a tan outside without using sunscreen.

    Other types of self tanning products, especially tanning accelerators and tanning pills, should be avoided.



    Ramirez R. Practical guide to sun protection. Surg Clin North Am - 01-FEB-2003; 83(1): 97-107.

    US EPA. Sun. The Burning Facts. September 2006. Accessed July 2010.

    US FDA. Sunless Tanners and Bronzers October 23, 2006. Accessed July 2010.

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