Does a Sun Tan Really Get Rid of Acne?

I have moderate acne on my face and back since I was a teenager, and my mother has always told me that I should go tanning or lay out to get rid of it.  It seems to help sometimes, but once the tan goes away my acne tends to get worse. Does sun exposure or tanning really help treat acne?  I could see that UV light might do something, but I'm worried about sun damage, too.  Thanks.

Doctor Answers 11

Tanning Is Never Worth the Risk of Skin Cancer

We all know that UV light makes acne better — but we also know that UV light makes skin cancers over time. So while you might not be concerned about skin cancers when you are young and want your acne gone, we as board-certified dermatologists see the effects of UV light – sun and tanning – later in life and have to do surgical procedures on many to remove skin cancers which could have been prevented in most cases.Tanning beds are bad for your skin in the long run. There is nothing safe about them — there are no safe tanning beds, and we have proven time and time again that these devices lead to an increased risk of skin cancer. It is not safe to go to them even once.So be smart — go to your dermatologist — they will come up with a safe and effective treatment regimen.

Nashville Dermatologic Surgeon
4.0 out of 5 stars 18 reviews

Myths of Acne and Sun

Yes, worry about sun damage. 

In general, there is a lot of talk about diet, hygiene and sunlight exposure, and how this relates to acne. Surprisingly little well studied evidence exists. This means that we, as doctors, can’t be firm about telling our patients exactly what to do about acne when it comes to diet, face-washing, and sunlight.

The best thing is to give individualized advice.

In general:

-From a practical point of view, it is useful to keep a diet journal, and so *you* can decide how this affects your skin. 

-Use sunscreen! We know sun causes damage.

-Face-washing may help, and there are products that can be applied to skin that will assist with mild acne

Magin P, Pond D, Smith W, Watson A. A systematic review of the evidence for ‘myths and misconceptions’ in acne management: diet, face-washing and sunlight. Fam Pract. 2005;22(1):62–70.

Barbara Persons, MD, FACS
Bay Area Plastic Surgeon
4.8 out of 5 stars 17 reviews

Suntan and acne

Suntan does not get rid of acne. The reason is why some people feel like their acne gets better when they're out in the sun is because light will sometimes improve the acne. This is why laser lights is used to acne.

Ben Behnam, MD
Santa Monica Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 2 reviews

Yes, it can , but there are safer ways to get rid or at least help reduce more.

So the answer is YES - light can help, tanning can help, but is it a safe option if you are fair skinned? No. As we all know UV light can cause skin cancer, and also photo ageing. There are safer options that utilise light to treat acne- this includes the use of BLUE light, or RED light. Blue light therapy is slightly better than red, but a combination of both (in a recent scientific paper) has shown to be better than either wavelengths individually. Light works by killing p. acnes, the bacteria implicated in acne lesions. 

Stay safe. 

Dr Davin Lim
Laser and cosmetic dermatologist

Davin Lim, MBBS, FACD
Brisbane Dermatologist
4.7 out of 5 stars 75 reviews

Tanning Not Recommended to Treat Acne

Sun tanning does not necessarily get rid of acne. There can be a mild anti-inflammatory effect on the skin with sun exposure, but more visibly, when the skin does tan the acne is not as apparent. There also may be a slight correlation with the diminished stress associated with the act of tanning which can improve acne in itself. There are many other effective treatments for acne that are not associated with the risks of premature aging and skin cancer. Treating acne with tanning is not recommended.

Joshua L. Fox, MD
Long Island Dermatologic Surgeon
4.9 out of 5 stars 19 reviews

Tanning Not a Treatment for Acne

Any skin-clearing benefits of unprotected sun exposure are negated by its harmful effects. Although you may notice a temporary improvement in your acne, laying out is not a healthy choice in the long run. By now you know that UV rays are major contributors to skin cancer and premature aging. Your acne may clear up negligibly, but the overall quality of your skin will deteriorate and you will develop wrinkles and discoloration at a younger age. Topical washes and creams containing salicylic acid, lactic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinols may help occasional breakouts and even out the skin tone. Using a sunblock meant for sensitive skin and acne prone skin is critical for long term skin health. If you can't manage your acne at home, see a dermatologist. Best of luck!

Jody Comstock, MD
Tucson Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 3 reviews

Acne treatment options in Santa Monica

The sun has cumulative harmful effects and should not be a first line treatment for acne. Our office recommends topical treatments and Melapeels to help correct acne symptoms.

Raffy Karamanoukian MD FACS

Los Angeles

Raffy Karamanoukian, MD, FACS
Los Angeles Plastic Surgeon
4.8 out of 5 stars 94 reviews

Sun exposure - Worst thing you could do

Over the years, those people who maintain the best skin elasticity are those who avoid UV exposure. There is NO skin care program that is better than sun avoidance.

The problem you have is that acne also harms skin elasticity so it would make matters much worse in the long run to add the elastic damage of UV on top of what damage is associated with the acne alone.

Go to an excellent Dermatologist for the most up to date management options!

Richard P. Rand, MD, FACS
Seattle Plastic Surgeon
4.8 out of 5 stars 67 reviews

Unprotected Sun Exposure Worsens Acne, Causes Wrinkling and Skin Cancer

It seems like sun exposure clears your skin in the short-term because the skin dries out and the tan (or sunburn) you develop helps camouflage the acne. In addition, the sunlight can act as an anti-inflammatory and improve your acne temporarily. However, unprotected time in the sun or the tanning salon is one of the worst things you can do for your skin in general.  This leads to even more dead skin for your body to shed, leaving you with a greater chance for pore-clogging skin cells to mix with bacteria and oil to form blemishes. Long-term unprotected sun exposure can also result in premature signs of aging and drastically increases your chances of developing skin cancer. If you use a prescription acne medication, these drugs can make the skin very sensitive to the rays of the sun and tanning booths.

Instead of risking permanent skin damage, I recommend making an appointment with a board certified dermatologist to discuss your treatment options.

Ashley R. Curtis, MD
Atlanta Dermatologic Surgeon

Ultraviolet light causes acne FLARES 2-3 weeks later

Well, in this case mother certainly does NOT know best. The temporary improvement is the result of the damaged first layer of skin sloughing off. The acne always flares 2-3 weeks later due to the cells in the pore not being shed properly, and likely due to the delayed inflammation of the skin from the damaging UV rays. And that is not even discussing the delayed risk of skin cancers, brown blotches and premature wrinkling.

There are now so many healthy options to treat acne (check out Cooltouch and Isolaz) that it is downright foolish to use ultraviolet light for the very temporary result.

Good luck and keep being smart.

Mary P. Lupo, MD
New Orleans Dermatologist
5.0 out of 5 stars 18 reviews

These answers are for educational purposes and should not be relied upon as a substitute for medical advice you may receive from your physician. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911. These answers do not constitute or initiate a patient/doctor relationship.