Tanning While Pregnant: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 06, 2022
5 min read

With all the changes that pregnancy brings, you might want to take extra steps to look your best. Getting a tan might make you feel like a million bucks. The hint of color on your skin might even help you disguise pregnancy-related skin changes, such as acne or dark patches on your face.

It’s unlikely that any type of tanning will harm your growing baby. But that doesn’t mean that tanning is a totally safe activity while you're pregnant. The risks that come with sun exposure and using tanning beds are the same whether you're pregnant or not. Self-tanner and spray tans are safer if you use them properly.

Getting outside to enjoy fresh air and sunshine is perfectly fine during pregnancy. In fact, moderate exercise outdoors is a good way to stay fit while you’re expecting. There isn't any danger from exposing your pregnant belly to sunlight. 

Being outdoors in the sun has benefits but you should be careful about how much time you spend sitting in the sun while pregnant. Excessive sun exposure can cause problems for anyone, so it’s best to take some common-sense precautions. 

In general, too much sun exposure is linked to a higher risk of skin cancer. UV rays are known to lead to all types of skin cancer, including melanoma. Sun exposure can also worsen signs of aging, such as: 

  • Wrinkles
  • Dark spots
  • Sagging skin

Many experts recommend wearing sunscreen whenever you're outside. Hats, sunglasses, and loose clothing can protect against skin damage as well.

Some people have increased skin sensitivity during pregnancy. Pregnancy can cause dry, itchy skin, and being out in the sun might make it worse. You may get some darkening skin on your face — melasma, sometimes called the mask of pregnancy — or darkening freckles. Sun exposure might increase this hyperpigmentation.

Sunburn is another risk of sun exposure. A mild sunburn isn’t a major risk during pregnancy, but it can be uncomfortable. You may not want to take over-the-counter pain relievers to ease the sting, so avoiding getting burned is a safer plan.

Some research shows that sun exposure can decrease the amount of folate in your system because UV light degrades folic acid. Folate is critical to early fetal development, and low folate levels are linked with fetal issues like spina bifida.

Another concern about being out in the sun too long during pregnancy is your risk of overheating. In severe cases, overheating can cause symptoms including:

  • Warm skin
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea 

If your body temperature rises above 102 F, you are at increased risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration. Dehydration can cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Braxton Hicks contractions 

Using tanning beds at any time presents serious health risks. Artificial tanning lights emit harmful UV radiation that can lead to premature aging. The UV rays can also dramatically increase your risk of skin cancer. Many experts recommend that people avoid tanning beds completely.

Using a tanning bed while pregnant won’t harm your baby, nor will it lead to pregnancy complications. The biggest concern with using tanning beds during pregnancy is the risk of overheating.

If you decide to use a tanning bed while you’re pregnant, you should limit the amount of time you’re in it. Shorter tanning sessions can help prevent burns, which your skin may be more prone to during pregnancy. Shorter sessions will also keep you from overheating. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids after using tanning beds.

There are a variety of self-tanning products that you can apply directly to the skin to give it a tanned look. These products don’t rely on UV rays to change the pigment of the skin. Instead, most use a coloring agent called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA combines with amino acids in the skin and causes the topmost layers to darken to a browner shade. The darkening doesn’t lead to skin damage, and the effects wear off as you naturally shed dead skin cells.

There have been few studies on the effects of DHA during pregnancy. However, it is known to primarily interact with the skin and maintain very low levels in the blood. This means there is little risk of DHA affecting your pregnancy.

Experts consider the use of self-tanner while pregnant a safe way of achieving a sun-kissed glow. There’s no risk of UV damage, and it won’t cause you to overheat. Just remember that some lotions have strong fragrances, so make sure you can tolerate the smell before you buy a self-tanner.

Spray tans are usually a great alternative to UV exposure from the sun or tanning beds. Spray tans use DHA to pigment your skin, which is the same active ingredient as that in self-tanner lotions. DHA isn’t considered high risk when you apply it to your skin, but there is no available information on the effects of inhaling it, which is possible when it’s applied as a spray.

Experts suggest avoiding spray tans while you’re pregnant. If you want to try getting a spray tan, you should do so in a well-ventilated space. You can also try wearing a mask to limit the amount of spray you might inhale.

There are some products in pill form that claim to provide a tan. These usually contain enormous quantities of a food additive called canthaxanthin. When you consume a lot of canthaxanthin, it forms deposits in your skin, causing it to look darker.

Canthaxanthin is safe when used in small quantities, but the dose in tanning pills is well above the approved quantity. Tanning pills are also linked to side effects such as canthaxanthin-induced retinopathy, where the substance causes crystal deposits to form in your eyes.

Tanning pills are not FDA-approved, and it’s illegal to import them into the U.S. These pills are not considered safe for anyone, pregnant or not. 

If you have questions about tanning or sun exposure during pregnancy, talk to your doctor. Medical professionals can help you make the best choices for yourself and your baby.