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Does Tanning Help Acne? A Review of the Available Science

A woman in a white bikini laying on a tanning bed, using it to help her acne.

If you were alive in the early 2000s, you probably remember some of the bizarre beauty trends pushed by celebrities and teens. One of those trends was extremely bronzed skin. Whether you were a man or woman, newlywed or prom queen, crazy partier or dinner guest, fake tans were all the rage. 

To achieve that golden glow, spray tans were the early aughts’ answer to avoiding the harmful effects of tanning beds or sun exposure. You might assume these folks had the right idea, since The Skin Cancer Foundation has linked both indoor and outdoor tanning to damaged skin cells, increased signs of aging, and skin cancers like malignant melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.

But what if there’s more to the story? Is it possible that tanning could help those who suffer from acne breakouts? We did a deep dive into the available research to help answer the question, does tanning help acne?

Benefits to Overall Health

First, let's talk about some of the potential health benefits of ultraviolet (UV) tanning. 

Ultraviolet tanning can be used as a treatment for vitamin D deficiency, a common health issue affecting individuals across the globe. It’s estimated that about one billion people have a vitamin D deficiency, including about 35% of U.S. adults. Additionally, up to 50% of the world’s population has insufficient vitamin D levels and are at risk of becoming deficient.  

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, muscles, and joints. In addition to bone pain and muscle aches, low vitamin D levels can cause other severe symptoms, including constant fatigue and even depression. 

Increasing your exposure to UV light through tanning or the sun could be helpful, but if you have low vitamin D, it’s important to talk to your doctor and discuss possible underlying conditions that may have caused this deficiency. Kidney disease, liver disease, cystic fibrosis, and Crohn’s disease are possibilities, to name a few.

Increasing your vitamin D can also boost your mood and energy levels. While tanning is not a permanent treatment option for mood conditions like depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it has been proven to stimulate the release of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals your body releases to reduce pain and stress and to enhance emotions related to tranquility and well-being.

You may experience a boost in mood or an increase in happiness after spending time in a tanning bed because tanning can make you feel more attractive. It may give you that radiant glow you couldn’t achieve with a spray tan.

Another surefire way to feel more attractive is to find an effective treatment for acne breakouts. But is tanning the answer? Does tanning help acne or prevent future breakouts? 

The Effects of Tanning on Acne

Where did the idea of tanning to eliminate acne come from? Throughout the years, many tanning salons have claimed that exposing your skin to the UV light emitted by tanning beds can help treat acne breakouts. 

So many tanning salons made this claim that, in 2012, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce investigated it. As it turned out, salons had no research to support the claim that tanning could help acne. 

Tanning salons not only falsely touted benefits of UV light for acne, but they also ignored and underplayed the possible effects of UV light on people using certain acne medications or topical treatments. Some over-the-counter products and prescription medications can make your skin even more sensitive to UV light, making tanning a very bad idea.

But that doesn't mean there aren’t some potential benefits to tanning that could lead to improved cosmetic appearance. One of these benefits is disguising dark and red acne scars left by previous breakouts. You may be happier or more content with your skin after tanning, especially if you don’t currently have any acne breakouts and your primary concern is uneven skin tone.

Tanning may also reduce your skin’s oil production, temporarily improving oily skin. However, your skin is likely to overcompensate by producing more oil, or sebum, through the sebaceous glands. An increase in sebum can clog pores, along with acne-causing bacteria and dead skin cells, ultimately leading to more breakouts.

Infographic: Does Tanning Help Acne? A Review of the Available Science

Is There Any Truth to the Claim That Tanning Can Help Acne?

Is there any research at all to support the claim that tanning can help acne?

A study from 2015 tested the effectiveness of tanning beds against a variety of dermatologic conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne. Tanning beds were being tested as an alternative to phototherapy, which was not as accessible for many people. While the study found that exposure to UV light from tanning beds may help combat these skin conditions, the research was limited by several factors. For example, there was no long-term follow-up on the study participants.

The many variables involved also make it difficult for studies to determine if tanning helps acne, including the severity and frequency of breakouts, the type of acne, skin type, diet, genetics, and more. There haven’t been any conclusive studies factoring in the majority of these variables to adequately test tanning beds as a treatment for acne. More research is needed to fully test whether tanning actually helps acne. 

Should You Try Tanning to Help Your Acne?

Though it’s possible that tanning could improve very specific skin problems such as uneven skin tone, tanning as a cure for acne is largely a myth.

Even if using a tanning bed could help treat acne, it’s important to remember that tanning alone comes with many health risks. These risks range from temporarily burnt skin to permanent eye damage and an increased risk of cancer. So even in a world where tanning leads to perfectly clear skin, the payoff may not be worth the risk.

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