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Tanning Oil Vs. Tanning Lotion: Which Is Best For You?

If you’ve recently searched for tanning oil vs. tanning lotion, you’re probably wondering which of the two you should get for yourself. With such a wide array of tanning products available in the market today, it’s easy to get confused with all the different formulations, benefits, and purposes.

A pair of yellow flip-flops, two suntan lotion bottles, and blue snorkeling goggles on a sandy beach.
Photo credit: Deposit Photos.

I myself like to get a little golden tan during the summer. I personally have both products and use them on different occasions. It’s not a matter of which product is best, it’s all about choosing one that aligns with your personal needs and preferences and helps you achieve your tanning goals.

To help you make an informed decision, let’s talk about the differences between a tanning oil and a tanning lotion, plus important things to consider when choosing between the two so you can achieve that glowing sun-kissed look perfect for summertime!

Tanning Oil Vs. Tanning Lotion: What’s the Difference?

Tanning oils and tanning lotions are both great for summer skin. They are designed to help the skin build a healthy perfect tan. While they have a similar purpose, they have very different formulations and offer different benefits.

So how does tanning oil work? The main purpose of these spray oils or spray tans is to provide a quicker and darker tan, as they help the skin absorb more sunlight and they stimulate the body to produce more melanin. They are ideal for those who don’t burn easily, already have tanning experience, or have a darker skin color. My go-to is the Dr. Mercola Natural Tanning Oil. It’s waterproof, made with plant-based ingredients, contains no preservatives and fragrances, and is 100% biodegradable and eco-friendly!

Dr. Mercola Natural Tanning Oil
$9.97 ($1.25 / Fl Oz)

Buy Now
04/16/2024 11:10 pm GMT

On the other hand, the goal of tanning lotions is to provide the skin with protection while tanning. They typically contain SPF and work to moisturize the skin while exposed to the sun. My favorite is the Sun Bum Browning Lotion, which I use whenever I feel like I’m starting to look pale. It’s great for all skin types and it contains aloe vera, kona coffee plant extract, marula, argan, coconut, and avocado oil that leaves my skin feeling soft and supple. It smells so good, too!

Sun Bum Browning Lotion
$18.49 ($2.18 / Fl Oz)

Buy Now
04/16/2024 11:21 pm GMT

Keep in mind that a tanning bed lotion can only be used with tanning beds. An outdoor tanning lotion is an entirely different product – each of these lotions have different formulations and cannot be used interchangeably. 

Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says “Tanning bed lotion should never be used outdoors in the sun. There are significant differences between tanning bed lotions, which are designed for indoor use, and SPF products that can help protect your skin from damage when outdoors.”

Be sure to take safety precautions and read the labels thoroughly from different brands to know which one suits your needs best. So what are the other notable differences between a tanning oil and a tanning lotion? Let’s go through each one!

A woman wearing a bikini applies sunscreen lotion from an orange bottle on a sunny beach, with a straw hat nearby.
Photo credit: Deposit Photos.

Consistency and Texture

Tanning oils and lotions have very different formulations; therefore, their consistency and texture are also very different. A tanning oil has a lighter consistency and a more fluid texture like traditional body oils or sprays. It is greasy and creates shine, but stays longer on the skin.

Tanning lotion has a thicker and creamier texture similar to regular body lotions. It feels lighter on the skin because it’s non-greasy, but more applications are needed because it absorbs quickly. 

Sun Protection

Tanning oils generally do not have built-in sun protection because their purpose is to attract the sun’s UV rays to the skin. They contain low SPF (sun protection factor) or none at all to enable a quick and deep tan. Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD, says “It is very important that if you choose tanning oil, you choose one with enough SPF, typically around 30 SPF.” Don’t forget to take regular breaks from the sun, too.

Tanning lotions, which work like a regular sunscreen lotion, often come with higher SPF levels, which range from low to high levels, to provide varying degrees of protection against sun damage while also promoting tanning. 

Moisturizing Properties

Tanning oils offer some moisturization as they are typically made of natural moisturizing oils like coconut, almond, or grapeseed oils. However, the formulation of tanning oils is focused on enhancing the tanning process rather than hydrating the skin

In contrast, lotions tend to provide more intensive moisturization to the entire body compared to oils while facilitating tanning. They are formulated with higher levels of moisturizing and nourishing and natural ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and shea butter. I love shea butter on my skin, I even make a whipped sugar scrub with it! 

Intensity of Tanning

You’ll get a quicker and long-lasting tan if you use a tanning oil, as it contains ingredients that aim to boost the tanning process by intensifying the effects of UV rays on the skin. This tanning product is usually made with natural tanning oils like argan, coconut, or olive oil, plus tanning accelerators like tyrosine and psoralen.

Tanning lotions may also contain such oils and enhancers but tend to focus more on providing the skin with hydration and nourishment rather than solely giving it a tan.

Benefits for the Skin

Since tanning oils are focused primarily on enhancing the tanning process, they offer minimal benefits for the skin beyond hydration from their moisturizing ingredients. Tanning lotions naturally offer more skin benefits because they contain a broader range of skin care ingredients like antioxidants, vitamins, and anti-aging components that aim to protect, nourish, and hydrate the skin during the tanning process. Be sure to always check the product’s active ingredients before purchasing!

Woman holding a bottle of tanning oil, smiling at the camera while lying on a beach towel with a clear blue sea in the background.
Photo credit: Deposit Photos.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Tanning Oil and Tanning Lotion

The right tanning product for you greatly depends on various factors, including your skin type, desired tanning outcomes, environmental conditions, budget, and personal preferences. Once you’ve gone through these important considerations, it will be easier for you to choose which product is right for you!

Your Skin Type

The right tanning product for you depends on your skin type. If you have normal skin, you can choose to use tanning oil to achieve gorgeous, sun-kissed skin. However, if you have dry skin, a moisturizing tanning lotion may be more suitable, as it may help hydrate your skin while providing a tan. Opt for a lightweight, hypoallergenic tanning lotion with higher SPF and minimal fragrance if you have sensitive skin. Don’t forget to do a patch test before applying fully!

Additionally, tanning products have varying degrees of DHA, the active ingredient that causes the skin to darken. If you have a light skin tone, choose a product with lower levels of DHA for a natural-looking tan. If you have a darker skin tone, you may want to choose a product with a higher concentration of DHA to see a noticeable difference.

Desired Results

The type of product for you also depends on your desired tanning outcome. Do you want a quick, deeper tan or a more gradual, natural-looking tan? If your aim is to have an intense tan in a small amount of time, go for a tanning oil. Choose a tanning lotion if you’re aiming for a more gradual tan with added skin care benefits.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as the intensity of the summer sun, water exposure, and humidity levels also play an important role in determining what you should get because they affect the effectiveness and practicality of the products. If you plan to do a tanning session during peak summer months or in tropical regions where the sun is intense, opt for a tanning lotion with a high SPF level to help reduce the risk of sunburns, skin damage and premature aging. Lotions are also more suitable if you plan to swim or engage in water sports because they offer better water resistance. 

Tanning oils are better suited for tanning by the poolside or on cooler days at the beach. They are also more ideal to use in places with high humidity because they provide better absorption, allow the skin to breathe, and last longer, although they will feel greasier or stickier which some people may find uncomfortable.


You should also consider your budget and frequency of usage when choosing tanning products. If you plan to tan during the summer only (like me!) and get a nice, even tan quickly, buying a tanning oil may be more cost-effective. But if you plan to continue using a self tanner to achieve a gradual, natural-looking tan with added skincare benefits, you may have to spend more buying tanning lotions.

Personal Preference

The choice ultimately comes down to your personal choice. When choosing between tanning oil and lotion, do it like how you choose your other skincare products – think about your skin health and consider your specific needs and preferences. If you want deeper hydration, additional skin care benefits, and sun protection, a tanning lotion with SPF is a suitable choice. If you prefer a lightweight and easy-to-apply product that intensifies the tanning process, a tanning oil may be a better choice for you.

Wrapping Up

Both tanning oils and lotions can give you a beautiful golden glow tan that’s perfect for your summer adventures. Each product offers unique benefits that cater to different needs and lifestyles. What’s important is that you choose a tanning product that aligns with what you need and use it responsibly so that you can achieve a healthy, radiant glow all year round.

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Thursday 18th of April 2024

I've gotten SO pale over the winter and I'm ready to pull out the shorts... but I don't want to blind people with my legs. This was great info for me as I'm easily overwhelmed by too many product choices.

Easy Homemade Life

Friday 19th of April 2024

I totally get the struggle with all those product options out there. I'm happy to help you find good options, Gilly!