I wondered the same thing until I did some serious research.
For years, I tanned indoors without using any lotions at all. As a result, my skin was always a nice brown color, but it was dry, flaky, and didn’t look very healthy after tanning.
I’ve since learned the importance of using an indoor tanning lotion, as well as some tips for keeping my skin as healthy as possible when tanning indoors. I know, I know… my skin would be much healthier without any exposure to UV rays, but I still do it (sometimes).
It’s important to realize that indoor tanning lotions are very different than typical suntan lotions that were formulated for use outdoors.
Believe it or not, you should never use a regular suntan lotion in a tanning bed. You should only use indoor tanning lotions.
Here’s why, plus some important facts about indoor tanning lotions that you might not realize…
How Indoor Tanning Lotions Are Different
There are some major differences between indoor and outdoor tanning. Indoor tanning relies primarily on manufactured UVA rays in a controlled environment, compared to outdoor tanning that consists of both UVA and UVB natural rays in widely varying environments. Because of these different conditions in outdoor and indoor tanning, different solutions for protection and tanning enhancement should be used. Source
There are some important differences between indoor and outdoor tanning lotions.
For starters, indoor tanning lotions:
- May or may not have SPF — While most regular suntan lotions contain a sunscreen, indoor tanning lotions typically do not. The belief is with indoor tanning you don’t need as much SPF protection due to the other “helpful” ingredients found in indoor tanning lotions. Think of it this way: with indoor tanning, your tan time is set to limit your exposure to UV rays, whereas with outdoor tanning, you limit your skin’s exposure to UV rays by selecting the appropriate SPF.
- Enhance UV rays, rather than block them — Indoor tanning lotions are specially formulated to enhance the effect of UV rays (typically 95% UVA and 5% UVB, +/-3%). The SPF found in outdoor suntan lotions blocks both UVA and UVB rays — which largely counteracts the benefits of indoor tanning.
- Work best during short tanning sessions — Regular suntan lotions are designed to protect you during long periods of time spent outside in the sunlight. Indoor tanning lotions are designed for shorter, more intense indoor tanning sessions — resulting in a deeper, quicker tan.
- Won’t damage tanning beds — Regular suntan lotions will damage the acrylic material that tanning beds are made of. (The acrylic hoods are porous and expand when the bulbs heat up.) In addition, using a regular tanning lotion in a tanning bed creates a film on the acrylic that ultimately restricts the tanning process and limits the tan you obtain.
As you can see, if you’re going to use a lotion when tanning indoors, it should be an indoor tanning lotion rather than a typical suntan lotion for use outdoors.
NOTE: If you want to use an indoor tanning lotion with SPF, you probably won’t be able to find one among all the tanning lotions for sale at the tanning salon itself. Due to the effect of SPF on the acrylic parts of tanning beds, most tanning salons frown on the use of tanning lotions with SPF and they only sell indoor tanning lotions without SPF. Be sure to buy one ahead of time and take it with you each time you go to the tanning bed.
Always, always, always wear a lotion. Lotions are designed to specifically work with the ultraviolet sun bulbs to help your skin achieve a tan and hold the bronzed pigment. Source
Wondering about the differences between UVA and UVB rays? Read on…
UV Rays Explained
- UVA (ultraviolet-A): long- wave solar rays of 320-400 nanometers (billionths of a meter). Although less likely than UVB to cause sunburn, UVA penetrates the skin more deeply, and is considered the chief culprit behind wrinkling, leathering, and other aspects of “photoaging.” The latest studies show that UVA not only increases UVB ‘s cancer-causing effects, but may directly cause some skin cancers, including melanomas.
- UVB (ultraviolet-B): short-wave solar rays of 290-320 nanometers. More potent than UVA in producing sunburn, these rays are considered the main cause of basal and squamous cell carcinomas as well as a significant cause of melanoma.
Now, for the reasons why an indoor tanning lotion is preferred to using nothing at all…
How Indoor Tanning Lotions Work
Products formulated specifically for indoor tanning enhance and stimulate the body’s natural tanning process.
Indoor tanning lotions work by protecting the moisture levels in your skin, allowing your pores to open up, and magnifying your UV exposure. By controlling your tanning process through magnification, moisturization, and skin conditioning, you will get a deeper and longer-lasting tan. That’s the real benefit of indoor tanning lotions.
Many of high-quality indoor tanning lotions have a refractive prism of natural oils that cause a magnification of the UV light. This helps to intensify your tan.
Indoor tanning lotions that contain vitamins, natural oils, minerals, anti-oxidants, natural botanical extracts, and aloe vera give your skin the extra moisture needed to achieve a deeper, darker tan that will last longer than dry, unhealthy skin.
Dry skin reflects UV light, so if you are not using an indoor tanning lotion, you can be wasting up to 50% of your tanning session. Source
According to a 14-day study done by the American Tanning Institute, 100% of those using indoor tanning lotions showed an overall improvement in tan-ability.
And now for the pros & cons of indoor tanning lotions…
Good Things About Indoor Tanning Lotions
A high-quality indoor tanning lotion that you apply to your skin before entering a tanning bed or tanning booth will…
- Keep your skin moisturized — When tanning, your skin becomes dehydrated from the heat and light. Using an indoor tanning lotion will not only improve your tan — because moist skin tans much better than dry skin — but it will also improve your skin by making it softer and less likely to form wrinkles as quickly as dry skin.
- Save you time & money — Using indoor tanning lotions will accelerate your tan, so you will end up with a deeper, darker tan a lot quicker. This will save you time and money since you won’t have to tan as often.
- Make your tan last longer — By keeping your skin hydrated with an indoor tanning lotion, your skin will avoid peeling, so your tan will last longer.
- Provide nutrients & vitamins to your skin — Indoor tanning lotions tend to contain lots of helpful ingredients that nourish your skin, making it softer and healthier.
- Reduce dry skin — Indoor tanning lotions help to reduce the drying affects of the UV rays. Anti-aging ingredients in these lotions can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and premature aging of your skin.
- Enhance and even out your tan — By hydrating your skin with indoor tanning lotions, your tan will be more even. Using an indoor tanning lotion on a regular basis can help to enhance the tone of your natural tan and give you that great glow.
- Avoid that “after-tan” odor — Most people experience a smell after tanning that is caused from the bacteria on your skin getting hot from the tanning bed. Many indoor tanning lotions have an anti-bacterial ingredient that will eliminate that odor. Indoor tanning lotions are also fragranced with hundreds of different scents, so you can choose your favorite.
- Develop your tan even after you leave the tanning bed — Some indoor tanning lotions have tan enhancing agents. That way, you don’t stop tanning after you leave the tanning bed. Instead, your tan continues to develop for hours later — which is another reason to wait 2 hours before showering.
- Prevent burning — Although most indoor tanning lotions do not contain SPF, using an indoor tanning lotion can help prevent sunburns since it will keep your skin moisturized.
I don’t claim to know how it works, I can just say that from experience, it does. Indoor tanning lotions make your money go farther because they shorten the time it takes for your skin to start tanning. The downfall of designer indoor tanning lotion is the cost. These can run from $35 to $60 in the tanning salon. Indoor tanning lotions can be used as bargaining chips when negotiation tanning deals, but to save the most money, I prefer to buy mine on Amazon and Ebay. What is offered to me for $50 to $60 in the tanning salon is usually almost 50% less on Amazon and Ebay. Find a seller with high feedback that has ties to the tanning salon industry. Source
Downsides Of Using Indoor Tanning Lotions
At first glance, indoor tanning lotions may appear to be relatively safe.
That is until you see that one of the main ingredients in many indoor tanning lotions is DHA (or dihydroxyacetone). It’s the same ingredient that’s used in self-tanners (creams, lotions, and gels) that work without light.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the most effective products available are sunless- or self-tanning lotions that contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA is a colorless sugar that interacts with the dead cells located in the stratum corneum of the epidermis. As the sugar interacts with the dead skin cells, a color change occurs. This change usually lasts about 5 to 7 days from the initial application. Source
In effect, the DHA reacts to the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin which causes your skin to become darker. More specifically, the DHA in indoor tanning lotions creates a chemical change on your skin. It combines with your natural amino acids to produce temporary color on the skin.
Most of the tanning lotions have DHA or dehydroxyacetone. This specially formulated component can speed up the process of tanning, which then means that you really don’t have to expose yourself to the radiation of tanning beds for long time periods. It also tends to enhance the appearance of your tan through the presence of tyrosine. This amino acid can encourage the production of melanin on the skin, making your skin tan appear more even and natural. Source
DHA is combined with other products (such as menthol) that make your skin tingle. The menthol (or similar ingredient that causes the tingle) increases the blood flow under your skin and may even cause your skin to flush. The tingle factors range from 1 to 10.
Tingle or hot action tanning lotion products can add a little extra fun and relaxation to your tanning session, and can even help you get the ultimate tan. These products contain ingredients — usually benzyl or methyl nicotinate — that cause micro-circulation, which brings blood to the top of the skin, increasing blood flow and oxygenation of the skin cells. This oxygenation helps nutrients reach the skin, which expedites the skin’s natural growth and maintenance processes. The more oxygen your skin gets during tanning, the better your results will be. Source
Everyone reacts differently to different products, including indoor tanning lotions that have a tingler in them. For example, some people won’t even notice a tingle, whereas for others the tingle might be bad enough to be really uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important to test a bit of the indoor tanning lotion on a patch of your skin for 24 hours before putting it all over your body.
Of all the ingredients in indoor tanning lotions, DHA is the one that raises the most concern. In a study of the long-term effects of DHA, the results indicate that DHA could cause damage to your DNA and skin cells.
So, if you’re currently using indoor tanning lotions or sunless tanning products which contain DHA, just know that there are similar products available without it. Here are a few:
- Over Confident Indoor Silicone Tanning Lotion DHA-Free
- Rocker Chick Silicone Amplifier DHA-Free & Paraben-Free
- Wicked Ice Cooling Hemp DHA-Free Bronzer
- Brown Sugar Tingle-Free DHA-Free Bronzer
How To Properly Use Indoor Tanning Lotions
The act of preparing & maintaining your skin for indoor tanning should involve 3 steps. Unfortunately, most people usually only think about step #2 when they think of indoor tanning lotions.
#1 – Apply a pre-tanning lotion.
This is applied before you are exposed to UV light in a tanning bed. It helps to exfoliate, smooth, and moisturize your skin. The ingredients in these products (vitamins, botanicals and essential oils) nourish the skin and prepare it for the tanning process. Think of it as laying the foundation for building a rich, healthy tan. (Manufacturers of tanning products believe that a properly cultivated tan can be the body’s most effective sunscreen against the harmful effects of UV rays on the skin.)
#2 – Apply an amplifier.
This moisturizes the skin while you’re tanning and allows ultraviolet light to penetrate the skin. Normally, some ultraviolet rays bounce off your body. Amplifiers reduce your skin’s capacity for reflection, so more UV rays can actually get through for a deeper tan.
#3 – Apply an after-tanning lotion.
This moisturizes and replenishes your skin after it has been dried during the tanning process. Post-tanners will minimize peeling and flaking, as well as keep your skin moist and healthy.
Look for aloe vera based indoor tanning lotions. Many believe that designer indoor tanning lotions are the best because they’re manufactured by experts in the tanning industry. You definitely want to avoid cheap indoor tanning lotions which contain alcohol.
Here’s a description of all the different types of indoor tanning lotions — accelerators, maximizers, bronzers, and more. Plus, tips for choosing the best indoor tanning lotion for you. (Check out these indoor tanning lotion reviews.)
In case you’re wondering, I use Australian Gold accelerator for indoor and outdoor tanning! It smells great and makes a very subtle difference between the depth of color that I achieve after tanning.
I prefer an accelerator to a bronzer because I simply want healthier skin and a deeper, more natural tan — rather than additional color. I like the extra moisturizers that are found in accelerators. Bronzers, in addition to having moisturizers, also have DHA in them which turns your skin orange. (Admittedly, orange streaks occur much less with today’s self-tanners and bronzers than they used to in the past.)
I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money — so I write about “outside the box” ideas that most wouldn’t think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed over 10 years before switching gears to pursue activities that I’m truly passionate about. I’ve worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo — to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun & helpful websites).