Question: If my 'sun tan oil' has SPF 15, is it sun smart?

I was walking through my local chemist when a display of ‘sun tan’ oils caught my eye. I picked up a bottle.

“Protect and tan,” the pretty orange bottle has emblazoned across the front. I read it again.

“Protect and… tan?”

What a… seductive concept.

“Our Protect & Tan SPF 15 tanning oil is non-greasy and contains self-tanning ingredients to help develop a natural golden glow whilst staying protected from the harsh UV rays,” Australian brand Bondi Sands promises when it comes to their new coconut-based range.

Beautiful woman applying skin uv protection lotion

Then there's Reef Oil, another company that stocks another gradual tanning product with SPF 15 that purportedly "gives broad spectrum protection from the harmful effects of UV rays".

But is that... possible? Can you really tan 'safely'? Haven't we long been told that there's "nothing healthy about a tan"?

Can you really have your golden-y bronze-y tan-y cake and eat it too?

So glad you asked.

According to Cancer Council Victoria’s SunSmart manager, Heather Walker, no. No, you can't.

"The implication that a product could be used to achieve a suntan while offering UV protection is an absolute contradiction," Walker said in a statement to Mamamia.

"Unfortunately, we have seen these statements made on some products with phrases such as ‘protective tanning oil’ and the phrase ‘high protection sunscreen’ alongside ‘sun tan oil’. At best, these products are misleading, at worst they could lead to people unwittingly putting themselves at risk of skin cancer.


"The fact is there is no such thing as a safe suntan."

While products may assure you that the tan you'll gain is "safe", Walker says a tan "is a sign of skin cells in trauma from UV damage – not a sign of healthy skin".

"Fake tanning products may carry SPF claims, however the SPF will only last for up to two hours, not for the life of the fake tan.

"As with any sunscreen, these products should not be used to extend your time in the sun, and should be used in combination with covering clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, shade and sunglasses for the best protection against UV damage."

Listen: Why we all need to #SunscreenASister this summer. (Post continues...)

It appears companies are allowed to market their tanning products as 'sun protection' because the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has two distinct classifications of sunscreens.

A spokesperson from the Federal Department of Health told Mamamia that "primary sunscreens" are medicinal products primarily used for protection from UV radiation, but "secondary sunscreens" are those with a primary purpose other than sunscreening - for instance, 'moisturising' - but which must also contain a sunscreening agent.

The problem is this: Secondary sunscreen products, including "products for tanning without sun and after sun care products", are mostly not regulated under the therapeutic goods legislation because they are considered cosmetic products, not medical.

Added to this, is that SPF 15 is widely considered an inadequate level of sun protection and that Australians are encouraged to use SPF 30 or 50+ instead.

So we arguably have a situation in Australia where consumers like you and me see 'SPF 15' and the word 'protect' and think "this is a sun-smart choice that will also give me a tan".

But we're wrong. That's not what 'sun tan oils' provide at all.

"The damage from a tan is irreversible and over time, adds up to increase a person’s risk of skin cancer," Cancer Council Victoria’s Karen Walker explains.

So if you want to avoid the risk of melanoma, put the bottle back on the shelf.