Can Tanning Cure Acne?

It's a common myth exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can help treat acne—so common, in fact, that a 2012 investigation reported to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce found that tanning salons were touting acne treatment as one the benefits of their tanning beds (a false claim).

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But attempting to banish blemishes or prevent breakouts by tanning can do more harm than good. This is especially true for people using medication to treat their acne, as many such products increase photosensitivity, making skin more vulnerable to UV rays and potentially compounding the signs of aging and the risk of skin cancer.

If you're tempted to try tanning as a solution to acne, it's important to know that it is more likely to more harm than good and to understand why.

No Benefits, All Risk

It's true tanning may make skin look better by camouflaging dark spots and blemishes—but only temporarily. And although sun exposure initially can appear to dry up oily skin, this effect will backfire. Lying out in the sun or in a tanning booth dries out the skin, and in response, the oil-producing sebaceous glands produce more oil, which may lead to more breakouts.

Risks

The UV rays from both the sun and from tanning beds have been proven to cause skin cancer, including melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. The vast majority of skin cancer cases are directly caused by excessive sun exposure.

The main worry is sunburn, which causes long-term damage to the skin, even after the sting fades. But even if you never burn, your skin isn’t safe from sun damage. A tan is the skin’s way of protecting itself after it has been damaged, so tanned skin equals damaged skin.

Tanning also makes skin look older than it should. Wrinkles, age or liver spots, large pores, and sagging skin can all be attributed to too much sun.

Vitamin D

While sun exposure can provide vitamin D, an essential nutrient, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends strict sun protection and suggests that the best way to get vitamin D is through a healthy diet or supplementation.

Tanning isn't necessary for the skin to make vitamin D. It only takes brief exposure to sunlight to increase vitamin D (as little as five to 20 minutes twice a week), not the length of time needed to produce a tan.

Although not safe or effective for managing acne, tanning beds and natural sunlight sometimes are recommended for treating psoriasis and other light-sensitive skin conditions, and should be done only under a doctor's supervision.

Penalties for False Claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken actions against claims that indoor tanning is safe. These include an agreement in 2010 with the Indoor Tanning Association that they will cease making false claims about the safety and benefits of indoor tanning, and a follow-up in 2017 to remove these claims from their website. The material on their website was often quoted on websites for individual salons.

The FTC also reached a settlement in 2017 with Joseph Mercola and his companies to refund $2.59 million to purchasers of his tanning beds and tanning lights due to false claims about their safety and benefits.

Acne Medications and Sun Sensitivity

Many common acne treatments cause photosensitivity with increased risk of sunburn, blistering, or rash with sun exposure or using a tanning bed. Your skin will incur more damage when exposed to ultraviolet light.

The types of acne medications that produce sun sensitivity include:

Acne treatment procedures such as microdermabrasion, chemical peels, and laser treatments also may cause photosensitivity.

The mechanism of sun sensitivity for most of these treatments is that they increase skin cell turnover or remove skin cells mechanically, thinning the skin. This reduces the ability of the skin to protect against ultraviolet light damage.

Some of the drugs, such as the antibiotic doycycline, absorb UV light and are chemically transformed in ways that then transmit this energy to the skin, causing damage.

Light Therapy Research

While exposure to UV light may be harmful, there’s ongoing research looking at other wavelengths found in sunlight, and acne therapies are being developed based on them. Red and blue wavelengths are present in natural sunlight, while tanning beds emit primarily UV light. The use of blue light, red light, and pulsed light phototherapy for acne is becoming more available.

The bacteria that are implicated in acne (Propionibacterium acnes) produce molecules (porphyrin) that absorb wavelengths of blue and red light the best. The excited porphyrins then release free radicals inside the bacteria, which can kill them.

The bacteria also secrete porphyrins inside the sebaceous glands. As red light and infrared light penetrate deeper into the skin at this level, by activating porphyrins there these wavelengths can affect the sebaceous glands and inflammatory cells in ways that reduce the inflammation and oil production.

Another treatment, photodynamic therapy, is based on applying compounds such as 5-aminolevulinic acid (ALA) that are activated by specific wavelengths of light. Then when the skin is exposed to those wavelengths, there is an enhanced effect.

A 2015 Cochrane review of studies of light therapy for acne found no high-quality evidence that it was effective. But the studies overall showed a low certainty of therapeutic benefit from ALA activated by blue light or methyl aminolevulinate activated by red light for people with moderate to severe acne.

A Word From Verywell

When you are out enjoying the sun, be sure to protect your skin. Wear sun-protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck. Apply sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to every bit of skin that isn't covered by clothing (don't forget your feet). This protection is especially important if you are using acne medications or undergoing procedures that make your skin especially sensitive to sun exposure.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. House Committee on Energy and Commerce—Minority Staff. False and misleading health information provided to teens by the indoor tanning industry. February 1, 2012.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Sun exposure and skin cancer. Updated October 10, 2019.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 surprising facts about indoor tanning.

  4. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D fact sheet for health professionals. Updated March 24, 2020.

  5. Radack KP, Farhangian ME, Anderson KL, Feldman SR. A review of the use of tanning beds as a dermatological treatmentDermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2015;5(1):37‐51. doi:10.1007/s13555-015-0071-8

  6. Federal Trade Commission. Indoor Tanning Association closing letter. April 20, 2017.

  7. Federal Trade Commission. $2.59 million in refunds for Mercola tanning beds. February 7, 2017.

  8. Simman R, Raynolds D. Skin hypersensitivity to sun light due to doxycycline ingestion causing hand partial-thickness burnJ Am Coll Clin Wound Spec. 2013;4(1):16-17. doi:10.1016/j.jccw.2013.01.005

  9. American Academy of Dermatology. Lasers and lights: How well do they treat acne?

  10. Pei S, Inamadar AC, Adya KA, Tsoukas MM. Light-based therapies in acne treatmentIndian Dermatol Online J. 2015;6(3):145-157. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.156379

  11. Barbaric J, Abbott R, Posadzki P, et al. Light therapies for acneCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;9(9):CD007917. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007917.pub2

Additional Reading
  • Radack KP, Farhangian ME, Anderson KL, Feldman SR. A review of the use of tanning beds as a dermatological treatment. Dermatol Ther 2015 Mar; 5(1):37-51.

  • Zhang M, Qureshi AA, Geller AC, Frazier L, Hunter DJ, Han J. Use of tanning beds and incidence of skin cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2012 May 10;30(14):1588-93. 

  • Acosta KA, Hunter-Ellul L, Wilkerson MG.  “Commercial tanning bed use as a medical therapy.”  Tex Med.  2015 Jun 1;111(6).