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Can I Tan Underwater?

By Erika Peterson
Updated May 21, 2024
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Yes, it is possible to tan underwater; whether you are swimming, completing a water fitness routine, or taking a relaxing dip in a pool or lake. Many people complain that an underwater tan is different than an above water tan, which is true. It is always visually different than a tan that is received from lying out in the sun, relaxing on a raft, using a tanning bed, or receiving an artificial tan from a bottle.

These are not the only differences in the appearance of this type of tan, there are also differences in the visual appeal and look of an underwater tan that depend on the type of water that a person is swimming or relaxing in. Clear bodies of water, like a pollution free ocean or a chlorinated pool, are easier places for swimmers to tan, while murky bodies of water, like a pond or lake, are more difficult.

The tanning difference in various types of water is as a result of light absorption. The light from the sun, specifically the UVA rays, is naturally absorbed in every type of water. Studies have shown that the absorption is minimal in clear bodies of water, however. In cloudy or murky waters the absorption of light is higher, and therefore results in a weaker tan underwater for a swimmer, if any tan at all.

This is as a result of how UVA or ultra violet light works. UVA light is the type of light that is responsible for tanning the skin and enabling you to tan. This light is available naturally from the sun or artificially through the use of tanning beds. UVA light is strong and may cause a sunburn underwater instead of a tan.

Most tanning experts agree that the deeper the water, the more light that is absorbed and the fewer UVA rays that will reach the surface of a swimmer’s skin. This means that the skin is less likely to tan or burn, but water does not provide full protection from the sun. The UVA and UVB rays from the sun can still cause great harm to the skin.

To effectively reduce the sun’s effect on your skin, it is important to remember that there is no safe way to tan. While some sun exposure is healthy, a sunscreen should be warn at all times in order to protect your skin from the light of the sun.

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Nov 01, 2012

I had no idea you could tan underwater! Well, I do most of my swimming in murky lake water, so I probably can't tan there. However, I thought that water offered some sort of natural sunscreen!

By giddion — On Oct 31, 2012

@Valencia – The most water resistant sunscreen I have found is the clear, no-rub, spray-on kind. It dries in seconds and sticks to your body like a second skin.

While it won't make you greasy, you will have a hard time getting it off, even while scrubbing with soap in the shower. That is why I'm convinced that it works great to prevent me from burning, even under water.

By JackWhack — On Oct 30, 2012

@Oceana – It could be that you are getting in the water too quickly after applying sunscreen. Many experts say that you should let it soak in for about half an hour.

Even getting out in the sun before that amount of time has passed will result in possible sunburn. Your skin needs time to soak up the protection.

Have you ever noticed an oily substance floating in the water beside you after you enter the pool? That's your sunscreen saying goodbye to your skin.

By Oceana — On Oct 29, 2012

@popcorn – Maybe that's why my chest burns so badly in the swimming pool. I am usually standing up with the water at a depth just below my chest, and it is probably reflecting the sun onto my skin.

My chest burns worse than any other area of my body. Once a week, I have to vacuum the pool, and this is when I burn the most. I have been using sunscreen right before getting into the pool, but it doesn't seem to be working.

By Valencia — On Jun 03, 2011

Since my close friend developed skin cancer I've been a bit paranoid about protecting my skin. I must have been through a dozen brands of sunscreen that claims to be waterproof, but as yet I'm not convinced.

Ironically I just got a really nice underwater waterproof camera for my birthday. Maybe I'll have to use it in the bath!

By popcorn — On Jun 03, 2011

If you are going to try and tan underwater, make sure you are wearing a good waterproof sunscreen and that you take frequent breaks. While you may tan in the salon for an hour, staying that long in the water can be dangerous.

I have found that very clear water almost acts like a mirror, focusing more sun onto your skin. If this is scientifically true or not, I don't know, but it seems like you need less underwater exposure to get tanned then you do on the surface.

A good rule of thumb is to take the daily maximum exposure time they give on the weather, and shave off a few minutes. Better safe then sorry.

By lonelygod — On Jun 03, 2011

You can certainly tan underwater, and you can also burn very badly and quickly. I had the unfortunate experience of snorkeling for an extended period of time and not realizing that the water was reflecting the sun onto my back. I really thought nothing of it. My skin didn't feel any warmer because I was in the cool water.

Later that night though, my back was as red as a lobster and incredibly painful.

I have since learned that if you are swimming for a long time in the water, and especially snorkeling, either keep reapplying sunscreen or wear a t-shirt.

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