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How Do I Choose the Best Suntan Cream?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 17, 2024
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Picking the right suntan cream requires a person to consider where the tanning will happen, as well as whether the results should be temporary or long-lasting. The condition of the skin and the ability of the cream to keep the skin healthy also matters. Extras such as ingredients that give the skin a shimmery appearance come into play as well, as does the duration of use.

The first step in picking the best suntan cream is to look at how much tanning already has occurred. For someone who is just starting the tanning process, base creams are best with a higher sun protection factor (SPF) to avoid burning. If a person does not tan easily, however, products especially for hard-to-tan skin are the best option.

Decide whether the tanning is to occur with or without ultraviolet light or sun. If you will not be going outside or intend to use a UV-free tanning bed, then the best choices usually are bronzer lotions. A bronzer suntan cream may be either "natural" or "cosmetic." Natural products contain ingredients such as riboflavin to provide temporary color, and they wash off easily in the shower. Cosmetic bronzers contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, which works with the proteins in the upper layers of skin to deepen color. These DHA bronzing lotions provide slightly longer-lasting results. In either case, bronzers are good for people who want to darken or blend an existing tan, or who want some color until a natural base tan develops.

Some suntan creams are designed to stimulate the melanocytes in skin via amino acids and vitamins. Melanocytes are specialized cells that produce melanin, a pigment. The more melanin a person produces, the darker skin she has. Creams that work this way include accelerators and intensifiers, and because melanin production relies on light to a large degree, accelerators and intensifiers make the most sense for supplementing the natural results of outdoor or UV-tanning.

Tanning has the potential to damage the skin, making a person look older and causing some sensitivity to chemicals in common foods and products. One way to prevent some of this damage is to increase the circulation and thereby deliver more nutrients and oxygen to skin cells. In this case, the best option might be a tingling suntan cream. This type of cream contains ingredients that increase blood flow, which causes the person using the lotion to experience a slight warming and tingling sensation.

Regardless of what type of cream a person selects, the best suntan cream always is one that provides a high level of hydration and moisturization. Hydration replaces water in the skin, while moisturizing locks it in. This is important because moist skin tans more easily, stays tan longer and stays healthier during the tanning process.

People also can use "extras" in suntan creams to determine which one is best. For example, a person might consider the scent of the product, or whether the cream has ingredients such as antioxidants that will keep the skin in good condition and help it repair.

A final factor to use while evaluating a suntan cream is how long the cream takes to work. For instance, a DHA bronzer continues processing for several hours after application. This can impact what a person does after tanning, because in some cases, a person has to leave the cream on and thus cannot shower or bathe for a while.

Notably, some tanning creams are combination creams, which means they combine elements of the four basic tanning cream types: base, bronzer, accelerator or intensifier and hard-to-tan. This allows tanners to find a customized lotion ideal for their skin and tanning situation.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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