What’s the Difference Between Suntan Lotion and Sunscreen?

Terms to know and tips to protect your kids

Spending time in the sun can increase the risk of sun damage. For proper sun safety, parents should make sure their kids are covered with a broad-spectrum sun protectant that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 or higher. Yet with so many products out there, what do you need to know about the difference between suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock?

Mother applying sunscreen to daughter on beach
Hero Images / Getty Images

What Is 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 contain any sunscreen ingredients at all, and may even include a tanning accelerator.

Suntan lotion products and tanning oils include:

  • Bain de Soleil Mega Tan Sunscreen with a Self Tanner, SPF 4
  • Banana Boat Deep Tanning Spray Oil (contains no sunscreen)
  • Banana Boat Continuous Spray Sunscreen, Tanning Dry Oil, SPF 8
  • Hawaiian Tropic Island Tanning, Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 4
  • Panama Jack Amplifier Suntan Oil (contains no sunscreen)

Suntan Lotion vs. Sunscreen vs. Sunblocks

Since suntan lotions and tanning oils won't provide enough sun protection, children should only use a sunscreen or a sunblock that provides broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection.

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.

Remember

Suntan lotions and tanning oils have an SPF of less than 15 and aren't safe to use as a sunscreen. For proper sun protection, parents should make sure their kids are covered with a broad-spectrum sunscreen or a sunblock.

Choosing the Best Sunscreen

When choosing a sunscreen, find a product that:

  • Has an SPF of at least 15 to 30. You could go for a higher SPF, but experts believe that they give people a false sense of security. Sunscreens with SPFs as high as 100+ are available. However, there is little difference in their UV filtering ability: While SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, SPF 50 blocks 98%.
  • Offers protection against UVA rays as well as UVB rays. Several sunscreens do not offer protection against UVA rays, though experts have learned that UVA can be as damaging as UVB. It's important to be familiar with the sunscreen ingredients that help protect against UVA radiation.
  • Is water-resistant. Even if you aren't going swimming, your child may be sweating outside, 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, or spray.

Dangers of Spray Tans

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, it can be tough to get a teen to give up tanning completely. Sometimes we need to choose our battles wisely and find the least dangerous of the options out there.

Products that are marketed as sunless tanners work by darkening the skin with ingredients like dihydroxyacetone (DHA). While these chemicals are FDA-approved for application to the skin, the use of DHA in misting or airbrush tanning booths is not approved by the FDA.

Spray Tanning Lotions

Spray tanning lotions are thought to be a safe alternative to tanning, although the age that you can start using them isn't very clear. While spray tanning lotion is likely fine for teens, it is important for them to remember to use a sunscreen when outside. Most sunless tanning products don't provide good sun protection.

Airbrush Tanning

Airbrush tanning is a type of spray tan applied by a machine. It coats the skin to a desired pigment level. However, airbrush tanning should likely be avoided, since it is not approved by the FDA. There have been reports of adverse events such as coughing, dizziness, and fainting.

Takeaway

According to the FDA, exposure to spray tans can be hazardous to your health due to the inhalation of dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

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 Child's Skin

The rate of melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) has increased since sunscreen became widely available. So, it's important to use other sun protection methods in addition to sunscreen. Other ways to reduce exposure to dangerous rays include:

  • Wearing clothing with an SPF factor, and choosing long sleeves when possible
  • Avoiding the sun during peak burning hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Remembering that water and snow can reflect sun rays, increasing the risk of burning
  • Wearing a hat with a brim wide enough to protect the face
  • Staying in the shade
  • Remembering to protect your child's lips with lip balm (with an SPF of 15 or higher) and eyes with sunglasses

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does suntan lotion last?

Suntan lotions usually have a shelf life of about one year. According to the FDA, sunscreens, on the other hand, have a shelf life of about three years.

What are the dangers of suntan lotion? 

Suntan lotions that contain SPF have an SPF of 15 or less. This amount of SPF is not strong enough to provide adequate sun protection compared to sunscreens with an SPF of 15 and higher.

A Word From Verywell

The terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock are so similar that it can be difficult to know what you're getting. The important thing to remember is that SPF can help reduce the risk of sun damage to the skin. Speak with a dermatologist if, despite sun protection measures, you or your kids sunburn easily or develop any skin complications.

Was this page helpful?
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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sun safety. Updated April 28, 2021.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Is sunscreen safe?

  3. American Cancer Society. How do I protect myself from ultraviolet (UV) rays? Updated July 23, 2019.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Sunless tanners & bronzers. Updated August 24, 2020.

  5. American Cancer Society. Tanning pills and other tanning products. Updated July 23, 2019.

  6. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: melanoma of the skin.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen: how to help protect your skin from the sun. Published online August 29, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Kliegman RM, Stanton B, St Geme III JW, Schor NF, Behrman RE, Nelson WE. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2015.

  • Saraff V, Shaw N. Sunshine and vitamin D. Arch Dis Child. 2016. 101(2):190-2. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-307214