If you’re like me and you can’t seem to stay in one spot for too long without doing something, then hopefully you’ll relate when I say that sunbathing is relaxing for about two minutes before it gets boring. Plus, it’s time inefficient; I want to be in the water already, not waiting around for my skin to darken. This has led me (and I’m sure many others) to ask this question: can you tan through water? Heck, do you tan better in water? Doing both at the same time would be ideal.
You’ll be happy to learn that, yes, you can tan underwater. UV rays can penetrate the water and still reach your skin. As for whether you can get a better tan in the water, this one is much trickier to answer. Water reflects some UV rays at the surface, and absorbs more UV rays the deeper you go, so less UV rays will reach your skin if you’re mostly submerged. However, if you are lounging around at the surface of the water, then the reflected sunlight will be amplified and can tan you more severely.
In this article, I will explain why you can still get a tan in the water, how you can safely get a swimmer’s tan, and how to protect your skin from sunburn.
How do you tan in the water?
There are a couple of ways you can tan in the water: you can tan through the water or you can tan from the reflection of the sun above the water. Since you are not scuba diving, you will stay near the surface in order to breathe. Therefore, you will be affected by both of these ways of tanning.
Tanning through the water
Water can reflect 20% of the UV rays directly at the surface, but 80% of the rays will pass through. That’s a problem if you don’t want to get a tan while swimming. That said, the water will eventually absorb the rest as the rays travel deeper underwater. That is why it gets darker the deeper one dives and why scuba divers need to bring their own light sources at the depths they dive at.
Since swimmers are always at the surface of the water, basically they will still get hit with the majority of the remaining rays not reflected by the water’s surface. Thus, don’t think that you can forego sunscreen just because most of your body is underwater; you can still get sunburned and tanned underwater.
You might not be aware that you’re getting sunburned because water has a cooling effect that deceives people into thinking their skin is fine when in actuality, most of the sun’s rays are penetrating through the water despite not feeling it on your skin. Get stronger sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) if you have fair skin and do not want to get tanned or sunburned.
Tanning by the surface of the water
The other way that people can get a tan is due to the UV rays reflecting off the surface of the water. Reflected light is actually more intense than if the sunlight was shining on you directly. Therefore, any exposed body parts above the water’s surface will tan (and burn) more severely than any body parts underwater.
You can capitalize on this phenomenon by intentionally lying on a float in the pool instead of laying on a sun lounger poolside. The UV rays will reflect the intensified rays onto your skin, and theoretically even the water droplets on your skin can reflect the UV ray one more time.
Tanning in this way carries a lot of risks. For one thing, since the UV light is more intense when reflected, you can tan and burn much faster than expected. You also might tan unevenly, with certain areas receiving more reflected light than others.
Another risk is that the skin on our faces tends to be more sensitive and prone to burning. Therefore, you must protect your face by wearing sunscreen and a hat to limit how much sunlight reaches it.
How to tan safely and prevent sunburns
Getting a dark tan is great, but getting sunburned isn’t. In order to tan safely, it is vital that you wear broad spectrum water-resistant sunscreen (preferably SPF 30 or higher), making sure to apply it 15-30 minutes before you head into the sun, and to plan around avoiding the sun’s peak hours.
Furthermore, recognize that not everyone’s skin is the same. The darker your skin naturally is, the less likely you’ll get sunburned or even need a tan. Conversely, a redhead with pale skin will only ever burn and never tan.
Some people can literally get sunburned just by standing in the sun for 10 minutes without any protection, and others can be out all day before getting a similar effect. To be fair, this is also dependent on the UV index of an area. The more prone you are to burning, and the higher the UV index where you’re at, the higher your sunscreen’s SPF value should be, preferably 50.
One risk of tanning in the water is that water, particularly chlorinated water, can wash off some of that sunscreen even if it is water-resistant. That is why it is so crucial to give the sunscreen a window of 15-30 minutes so that it can be absorbed into your skin before you head into the water.
It is also crucial that you apply sunscreen evenly. Swimmers will be swimming with their back facing upwards, so the back, neck, and behind the knees are places that will get hammered by UV rays. Unfortunately, these areas are hard to apply sunscreen to without help, which increases the likelihood of a sunburn. Ask for help applying sunscreen to your back if necessary.
Lastly, consider the sun’s peak hours, which is around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During this time, the sun’s intensity is at its highest, meaning that the amount of UV rays is at its highest. Consider swimming a bit earlier or later than the peak hours, otherwise you are more likely to get sunburned.
Water visibility and tanning
If you are in a swimming pool, the water will be clear and this makes it easier for the UV rays to penetrate through the first few feet of water with little drop off in intensity. Also, the parts of your body that are above the surface of the water will be exposed to the reflected sunlight. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that you wear a swim cap to protect your scalp.
Conversely, if you are in deep, cloudy, or murky water, then the UV rays will be blocked or absorbed by all the particles in the water and you will tan more slowly. That said, unless you’re a scuba diver, I doubt you’d be swimming in such deep or low quality water in the first place.
You can definitely tan and get sunburned underwater as long as you are still close to the surface. UV rays can penetrate a few feet underwater, weakening the further down it goes. This also answers the question of whether you tan better underwater or not (you don’t).
If you are swimming or snorkeling, you will still bear the brunt of most of the sun’s UV rays since you’re near the surface, so protecting yourself with a water resistant broad spectrum sunscreen is a must.
Those of you who want to tan faster can lay on a float above the pool. The sunlight reflecting off the water’s surface will be much more intense than the sunight shining on you, which can help you tan faster but you might also burn faster.
Even though you tan slower underwater, it’s much more fun to be in the water than outside of it. The time will fly by and you will still get a tan regardless, though it will be mostly on your back if you’re mostly swimming face down or snorkeling. Whatever the case, you should be wearing sunscreen no matter how you’re tanning so that you don’t get sunburned.