How to recover from a suntan that's toasted your skin
Use that lemon juice to make nimbu pani, not a facepack
The quintessential dad joke — ‘What’s black and white and red all over?’ ‘ ‘A sunburnt zebra’ – is not only cringey but factually untrue. Researchers found evidence suggesting that their iconic coat serves the dual purpose of shielding them from harmful UV rays and keeping them cool in hotter climates. Zebras know how to protect their skin. Unfortunately, their bipedal mammalian brethren – us – didn’t get the memo. After spending long summer days in the sun, we’ve often found our faces darkened, red and burnt, and feet sporting a patchwork of tan lines exotic enough to make a zebra jealous.
We’re enterprising beings by nature and try our hand at every nuska and hack to get rid of a suntan. Lemon juice, besan scrubs, and head-to-toe protective covering; we’ve doused ourselves in aloe vera juice and rubbed tamatar slices on our cheeks with the enthusiasm of a ‘90s aerobics instructor until mummy starts screaming about ingredients missing for raat ki tarkari.
“Tanning is the body’s response to the damage done to the skin’s cells by exposure to UVA and UVB rays from the sun. Prolonged exposure to these UV rays causes DNA injury to the skin cells, which leads to darkening and pigmentation of the skin,” says Shirolikar. “Tanning from UVA rays lasts for a couple of days (even though they penetrate deep into the skin and trigger melanocytes to produce more melanin), but tanning from UVB rays can last for weeks and even months at a stretch.”
Dr Manjot Marwah describes tanning as a protective mechanism of our body against sun damage. An award-winning dermatologist, hair transplant surgeon, and director at Dr Manjot’s Clinic, Marwah says we all have melanocytes, which are cells that give the skin its colour, and melanin is its naturally-occurring pigment. “Tanning occurs when our skin is exposed to UV rays, which triggers melanin production in our skin. This darkens our skin and helps protect it from further damage caused by these UV rays.”
Everyone craves a soft golden glow, especially when you’re back from an exotic vacation abroad and want it to be a conversation starter when you next catch up with your friends. But tanning doesn’t only change the skin’s colour, says Shirolikar, it also prematurely ages the skin, leaving behind sun spots and wrinkles. “In certain extreme cases, the UVB rays could cause sunburns, as they burn the upper layers of the skin — the epidermis.”
So what do you do if your afternoon nap in the poolside hammock stretched on too long or forget to reapply your sunscreen while chasing Chintu around the playground?
How to get rid of a suntan, safely
Why am I tanning if I have brown skin?
It could be that one arm you always have up against the window while driving the car, the straps of your swimming costume, or just your hands that tend to catch the sunlight when you’re at your window desk at the office.
You might have been led to believe that the browner your skin, the lesser the need for sun protection – the melanin will protect you. But both Marwah and Shirolikar say it isn’t the case, and the risks are too significant to take a chance.
“People need sunscreen, regardless of their skin colour. Darker-skinned people may not show a tan as easily due to a higher melanin presence in their skin, but that in no way protects them from sun damage or makes them immune to sunburns, sun spots, wrinkles, or even melanomas (skin cancer),” adds Shirolikar.
What’s the best way to prevent tanning?
Why tackle a problem after it’s already occurred when you can avoid it? Well, not entirely. Unless you adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, you’re bound to tan to some degree.
Instead of trying to get rid of a suntan, be good with your sunscreen and keep a check on the UV index, says Shirolikar. “Only venture outdoors when the UV index is between 0 to 5, which is ideally early morning or late afternoon. Avoid the midday sun as much as possible, as that is when the sun’s rays are the harshest and can cause maximum damage.”
Shirolkar and Marwah advise applying sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30, wearing wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and sunglasses and seeking shade as much as possible.
Ingredients that help get rid of a suntan
Marwah recommends beginning with some gentle (yet practical) exfoliation. Put away the homemade coconut oil and coffee scrub and try an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) like glycolic and lactic acid, which can break up the top layer of dirt, dead skin cells and tan build-up. Shirolikar adds that AHAs help increase skin cell turnover, which could return your skin to its natural state. She cautions against using an AHA above 15% on your face and above 30% on your body. And always remember to follow up with a good amount of sunscreen. Otherwise, you’re risking severe skin damage.
Glyco 6 (₹201) is a drugstore favourite (always have a skincare list prepared for a pharmacy visit) that you should use with a less-is-more approach every 2-3 nights (depending on your skin’s tolerance); Chemist at Play’s Exfoliating Body Wash (₹399) is for those who are cautious of using leave-on products but still want something effective; The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 10% (₹750) is great for the face, and you might be tempted by the alluring red hues of their peeling solution, but if you’re a beginner, we’d steer clear of that highly potent formula and start with Acne Squad’s Incredible Peeling Tonic With 5% AHA & 1% BHA & PHA (₹594) which can be used on your face and body 1-2 times a week, depending on your skin’s tolerance.
Going into attack mode to get rid of a suntan, enlist the help of antioxidants and brightening ingredients like vitamin C, kojic acid, tranexamic acid (we’ve got a helpful guide to the new skincare superhero), alpha arbutin and also liquorice extract.
Marwah says that vitamin C packs a powerful punch, reducing sun damage, helping form collagen and giving skin its elasticity and firmness. Like vitamin C, green tea and resveratrol are fantastic antioxidants to protect the skin from environmental stressors and neutralise free radicals.
For toner fanatics, Isntree’s Green Tea Fresh Toner (₹1,750) will be your new favourite antioxidant-rich, calming and hydrating product; if you prefer to keep the treatment step simple with only a serum, then there’s MyGlamm’s 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum (₹679) with Pomegranate and Licorice, and Caudalie’s Resveratrol-Lift Instant Firming Serum (₹5,600) which have been a go-to for many online beauty gurus. For an all-in-one solution, Biluma Advance Lotion (₹710) has liquorice, vitamin E, kojic acid and arbutin that get the job done, and Tyrodin Creamy Lotion (₹530) is a top choice among dermatologists but should be used under their guidance given that it’s a mix of multiple actives, some in high doses.
FAQs with Dr Manasi Shirolikar and Dr Manjot Marwah
Do DIY concoctions, like haldi, lemon juice and tomato, work to get rid of a suntan?
“Homemade DIYs cannot and do not really work for tan removal. Lemon juice, for instance, if applied to the skin, can cause skin irritations and phytophotodermatitis (with symptoms that include blisters, skin inflammation and itching) if exposed to the sun. There is also no scientific evidence or backing to prove these work. While some people swear by them, it is best to damaging your skin further” – Shirolikar
Is there a ‘healthy way’ to get a nice suntan?
“Whether you tan indoors (using tanning beds) or outdoors, you will damage your skin, and it can lead to skin cancer as well, so avoid any form of ‘healthy tanning’ at all costs.” – Shirolikar
“There are alternatives like self-tanning lotions and sprays, which can help you achieve a subtle summer glow. Read the instructions carefully, and avoid overexposure to the sun.” – Marwah
Can you get rid of a suntan without using any products?
“Although our skin sheds every day, We can’t be certain, so it’s best to take necessary precautions to prevent sunburn. Wearing a hat and sunscreen is a good way to protect yourself from the sun’s rays.” – Marwah
What’s the difference between a suntan and hyperpigmentation?
“Sun tan is a type of hyperpigmentation, but all hyperpigmentation isn’t the result of a tan. Tanning occurs due to exposure to UV rays, whereas hyperpigmentation occurs because of multiple reasons, including age, health conditions, medications, hormonal fluctuations, or even injury and inflammation of the skin.” – Shirolikar
Can sun tanning help acne?
“Sun tanning cannot, in any way or form, help with acne. In fact, if you are undergoing treatment for acne, exposure to UV rays can cause further damage to your skin, making it worse than before. If you are using benzoyl peroxide, retinoids (both topical and oral), antibiotics or AHAs to treat your acne, your skin’s sensitivity to the sun is already at a high.
Also, microdermabrasion, chemical peels and other clinical treatments for acne can make your skin sensitive to the sun. If you try tanning your skin in such a situation, you will cause severe damage to your skin, causing severe itching, scaly, red skin, skin eruptions, peeling and inflammation.” – Shirolikar
Does wearing sunscreen properly impact your vitamin D levels?
“Theoretically speaking, yes, it does. But studies have proven that there was no difference between the vitamin D levels in people who used sunscreen and those who didn’t. Indians genetically have lower vitamin D levels. We can’t blame it on the sunscreens.” – Marwah
“A sunscreen with SPF 30 filters out around 97% of the UVB rays, whereas a sunscreen with SPF 50 filters out approximately 98% UVB rays, provided you have used them perfectly, without missing a spot, which, in all honesty, is not always possible. This leaves room for around 2% (and even more – up to nearly 7%) UVB rays to possibly penetrate the skin and produce vitamin D, which is usually sufficient.” – Shirolikar
A note of caution: This story is for educational purposes with inputs from trained experts. Please consult your healthcare provider to know what suits your needs best.