Using baby oil for tanning often results in quick color that lasts, but also presents a number of risks when it comes to skin damage. Most dermatologists and skincare professionals discourage baby oil while tanning because the risks can be so severe.
The pros of an even tan that deepens quickly are not usually strong enough to outweigh the cons, which include increased skin sensitivity, heightened chance of sunburn, and skin cancer.
Baby oil is usually little more than mineral oil, often combined with moisturizers that help it feel soft and smooth on the skin. Oils are valued as baby products in part because of how gentle they are and how easily they penetrate skin to deliver moisture. Unlike lotions, oils usually sit for a time on the surface of the skin. This can make them both a tanning aid and a sun exposure risk.
One of the biggest “pros” of using baby oil for tanning is how quickly a tan develops underneath the oil. Baby oil essentially acts as a reflector, attracting and absorbing sunlight directly. This amplifies the intensity of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. The baby oil acts as a conduit, allowing rays to penetrate much more deeply. People who wear oil in the sun often get browner much faster as a consequence.
Tans procured with baby oil are also generally very even. The oil reflects and distributes the sunlight across all oiled areas, such that no one corner of skin receives the sun more intently than others. Tanners can often achieve a more consistent bronze color with baby oil than they could with bare skin.
Speedy tans are not always healthy, however. Using baby oil for tanning often leads to sunburn, which is a significant “con” for most people. When the sun penetrates the skin through the oil, it can begin to damage the skin’s cellular composition almost immediately. The damage can happen faster than a tan can appear, however, which means that tanners often stay in the sun far longer than they should without realizing any harm. Only after they have come in and cooled off are they able to recognize the damage their skin has suffered.
Some dermatologists liken tanning with baby oil to frying meat with oil in a skillet. The oil causes the surface of the meat to crisp and cook differently than if the meat was simply added to the skillet alone. Most of the time, people who burn through baby oil experience much more uncomfortable skin lesions and bubbles than do people who have burned their bare skin. Many of the scars of baby oil burning take days or even weeks to heal.
Most baby oil contains no sunscreen, so it offers no protection against the sun’s harmful rays. One of the only safe ways to use baby oil for tanning is to use the oil on top of or blended with sunscreen and ensure that the sunscreen is reapplied at regular intervals. Some tanning oil products contain sunscreen, which makes them a better option than ordinary baby oil.