The Differences Between Suntan Lotion and Sunscreen

For proper sun protection, parents should make sure their kids are covered with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 to 30. Yet with so many products out there, what do you need to know about the difference between those which were once labeled suntan lotion and those labeled as sunscreens?

Mother applying sunscreen to daughter on beach
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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 vs. Sunscreen

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

When choosing a sunscreen, find a product which:

  • 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. Using a high SPF sunscreen might provide more protection, however, for those parents who don't use enough sunscreen and don't reapply it often enough.
  • Offers protection against UVA rays as well as UVB rays. Several sunscreens do not offer protection against UVA rays, though we've learned that the damage from these rays can be as important as those from UVB. Since it is hard to know which sunscreens offer adequate protection based on packaging, it's important to be familiar with the ingredients in sunscreen which help protect against UVA radiation.
  • 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.

Sunblocks vs. Sunscreen

There are differences between sunblocks and sunscreens as well. Sunscreen works as a chemical sunscreen by filtering the sun's rays, whereas sunblock works as a physical sunscreen, reflecting the sun's rays. Both sunscreens and sunblocks offer good protection against the sun, though sunblocks may be undesirable cosmetically as most of these are opaque. You've likely seen people with white noses at the beach due to wearing sunblock.

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. While a purist would say that it's probably best to avoid all sun exposure and sunless tanning products, limiting all methods of getting a tan may be challenging amidst the angst of adolescence. Sometimes we need to "choose our battles wisely" and find the least dangerous of the options out there.

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). These chemicals are 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 who would otherwise be using a tanning booth, it is important for them to remember to use a sunscreen. 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.

Simple Measures for Protecting Your Children's Skin

We live in a society in which we picture a pill or a cream in a bottle when it comes to prevention and treatment, yet often forget that there are simple measures we can all take to protect our kids. Considering that the rate of melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) has increased since sunscreen became widely available, it's clear that there must be other sun protection methods that can make a difference as well. Ways to reduce exposure to dangerous rays (in addition to sunscreen) include:

  • Wearing clothing with an SPF factor, and choosing long sleeves when possible.
  • Avoiding the sun during peak burning hours, from 10 am to 2 pm.
  • Remembering that water and snow can reflect the sun rays, increasing the risk of burning while on the water and when snow skiing.
  • Wearing a hat with a brim wide enough to protect the face.
  • Sitting beneath a beach umbrella (if you can find one which your child thinks is "cool enough."
  • Remembering to protect your child's lips with lip balm (with an SPF of 15 or higher,) and eyes with sunglasses.

A Note on Sun Exposure and Vitamin D

A discussion about sun protection wouldn't be complete without bringing up one of the positive aspects of sun exposure. It can be hard getting enough vitamin D in a healthy diet, and traditionally, much of our vitamin D has come from the sun. Vitamin D deficiency, in turn, has been linked with everything from poor bone growth in children, to depression and multiple sclerosis.

There are a few options for getting the vitamin D your child needs. Some of the dermatology organizations are reconsidering their recommendations to apply sunscreen before going outside; spending a few minutes (perhaps 10 to 15) before applying sunscreen may be beneficial. Vitamin D deficiency is a huge problem in the United States but management can be fairly easy. A simple blood test can determine if your child is getting enough, and if not, your pediatrician may recommend a vitamin D supplement to fill the gap.

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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. American Cancer Society. How Do I Protect Myself for Ultraviolet Rays?

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Sunless Tanners & Bronzers.

Additional Reading
  • Saraff, V., and N. Shaw. Sunshine and Vitamin D. Archives of Diseases in Children. 2016. 101(2):190-2. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-307214

  • Kliegman, Robert M., Bonita Stanton, St Geme III Joseph W., Nina Felice. Schor, Richard E. Behrman, and Waldo E. Nelson. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2015. Print.