Does Tanning Really Clear Up Acne?

by Sue Chung Patient Expert

The last time I tanned, my skin looked better. I also just read that UV light therapy helps acne. Doesn't that mean that tanning will clear up your skin?

Sue: I have to admit it. I used to believe this, too. In high school, when I went to the beach with friends and came back with a tan, I also noticed that my acne seemed to be gone. I figured that tanning did something that helped clear up my skin so I never left the beach without a tan. The operative word here? Seemed.

It wasn't until years later that I finally got factual information regarding tanning and acne. Tanning covers up redness and dries up the surface of your skin, making some blemishes fade away temporarily. But in the end, you're really only trading one problem for a host of others.

For starters, tanning causes skin irritation, especially if you stay out a bit too long and burn yourself. This adds to redness and leads to peeling, both of which may later aggravate the appearance of acne. Tanning also breaks down collagen. Collagen is one of your prime defenses against wrinkles because it keeps your skin elastic. When skin loses collagen, not only are you more likely to see wrinkles, but your pores may appear larger as well.

In addition, sun damage causes skin to thicken over time. Combined with peeling, it becomes more difficult to clear your pores of acne-causing bacteria and sebum. The effects of sunlight aren't really helping your skin because no matter what tanning salons claim, there is no substantial research demonstrating that tanning stops your skin's natural oil production for long or that it prevents bacteria growth.

On top of these misconceptions, you may be at risk for increased sun sensitivity if you're already on an acne treatment. Products such as Accutane and even over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide ointments recommend avoiding sun exposure. Why? Because these acne medications increase the rate of cell turnover and exfoliation. It's a positive effect when you're trying to clear out clogged pores, but it also leaves skin more vulnerable to the damaging effects of UV rays.

As for light therapy, there's a big difference between old-fashioned UV light therapy and modern blue light therapy. Both utilize wavelengths of light to kill acne bacteria in the pores, but UV light therapy has fallen out of favor due to the risks associated with skin cancer. Nowadays, blue light therapy contains no UV rays and should not be confused with tanning booths or tanning lights.

Blue light therapy does show some positive effects in eliminating acne bacteria, according to the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. However, acne bacteria is only one of several factors that contribute to the cause of acne. It's possible to use blue light therapy and still not reach a permanent solution for breakouts. Additionally, most insurance plans don't cover light therapy and there are no broad research studies that outline consistent positive results or the existence of long-term side effects.

So as tempting as it may be to tan for the immediate illusion of clear skin, hold off on the sun worship. Instead, speak to your doctor about your options and stick to a simple plan of washing with gentle cleansers and using treatments that have been proven to make headway against pesky blemishes. Better to be safe now than sorry about the wrinkles and discoloration you'll see in a few years.

Sue Chung
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Sue Chung

Sue wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Healthy Skin.