First, let’s talk about the mechanism behind self-tanners (as well as spray tans) that creates the look of tanned skin.
The active ingredient in all tanning products is dihydroxyacetone. Also known as DHA, this is a simple carbohydrate that can be derived either chemically or from natural sources such as beets and cane sugar.
How Does Self-Tanner Work?
When you apply a product containing DHA, it reacts with the amino acids in the top layer of your skin. This generates pigments called melanoidins, which appear brown because they absorb certain wavelengths of light.
This process is known as the “Maillard reaction.” It starts within two to four hours after applying self-tanner and continues for up to 72 hours.
During this time, it will emit that distinctive self-tanner smell, because of the chemical reaction taking place. (ALL DHA products produce it; brands just add different fragrances to try to mask it.)
Your resulting tan can last up 10 days but will start to fade within three to seven days as you naturally shed dead skin cells.
Is Self-Tanner Safe?
As you may have guessed, the problem with self-tanners is the DHA.
That Maillard reaction I mentioned, that takes place when you apply DHA to your skin?
It’s the same thing that occurs when you caramelize sugar or grill meat. So even though you’re avoiding the sun, you’re STILL roasting your skin!
Here’s what happens:
- Oxidative stress: The Maillard reaction from self-tanners generates free radicals, leading to oxidative stress. Free radicals are highly reactive chemical byproducts that attack cell structures and degrade collagen and elastin fibers. They can lead to premature aging, wrinkles, and sagging skin!
- Accelerated sun damage: The oxidative stress gets even worse if you go out in the sun after applying self-tanner because UV makes DHA more unstable. This study found: “In DHA-treated skin, more than 180 percent additional radicals were generated during sun exposure with respect to untreated skin.”
- DNA damage: DHA has also been linked to DNA damage. This study concluded: “The genotoxic capacity of DHA raises a question about the long-term clinical consequences of treatment of the skin with this commonly used compound.”
- Vitamin D deficiency: Regular use of self-tanners may even reduce your vitamin D. This study found that the melanoidin pigments created by DHA can inhibit the body’s vitamin D production.
- Irritation: Self-tanner can also lead to skin irritation and a weakened skin barrier. This study found that regular applications of DHA caused severe contact dermatitis and a damaged stratum corneum. Plus, most self-tanners contain fragrances to mask the DHA smell, and the fragrance is the number one cause of skin sensitivities.
All of these concerns apply to spray tans, too. In fact, spray tans are even riskier than lotions. When DHA is inhaled or exposed to mucous membranes, it can cause serious harm to your respiratory system and can even promote certain cancers. Don’t get spray tans!
So now you’re probably wondering about the new generation of “DHA-free” products.
Maybe you’ve seen formulas like The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil or Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster, which are said to be gentler alternatives to self-tanner.
According to parent company DECIEM, both contain a “purified keto-sugar that reacts with skin amino acids to produce a golden tone within two to three days without the sensory drawbacks and potential negative effects associated with DHA.”
Sounds perfect, right?
Best Alternatives to Self Tanners
Sunless tanning has come a long way over the years, and many of today’s formulas combine rejuvenating skincare benefits with today’s innovative tanning technology. For instance, Coola’s Sunless Tan Firming Lotion offers the appearance of firmer, tanner skin, and the Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Face Serum helps to minimize free radical damage, smooth skin, and reduce the signs of aging while adding gradual color to the skin. Similarly, VersaSpa’s self-tanning products combine green and brown marine algae to detoxify, firm, and rejuvenate skin for a beautiful, natural-looking tan. In addition to its new, innovative ingredients, sunless tanning has expanded from spray and lotion formulas to new textures that provide a variety of benefits and delivery methods. Here’s a look at some trending new options:
- Sheet Masks: St.Tropez Self Tan Express Face Mask is a tanning-infused sheet mask that develops into a radiant glow after eight hours. Leave on for five minutes for a light tan, 10 minutes for a medium tan, and 15 minutes for a deep tan.
- Drops: Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Drops can be added to a moisturizer to provide a natural-looking glow. The peach drops help brighten the skin; the green drops help to reduce redness and calm the skin, and the violet drops help reduce sallow tones and enhance a tan.
- Water-Like Texture: James Read Coconut Water Tan Mist is formulated with natural coconut water and helps to produce a natural-looking tan within three to five hours after application.
- Gel: Hampton Sun Sunless Tanning Gel leaves skin with a natural-looking glow and features a variety of natural ingredients.
- Serum: Vita Liberata Self Tanning Anti Age Serum gives a natural-looking face tan while reducing fine lines and wrinkles and plumping and conditioning skin.
- Rollerball Oil: Tan-Luxe Wonder Oil is a rollerball tanning oil that glides over the skin to release a golden color to the skin.
- Wash- Off Body Bronzer: – Perfect color for those ‘OMG I need a tan’ moments. On the Isle of Paradise, they know you want to glow from zero to disco in a flash—whether that’s at your desk, in your bathroom, or in the back of a cab. So, say hello to this illuminating, skin-perfecting bronzer and get ready to Disco (and then wash off when the party’s over). Disco Tan is formulated with a brightening Oxy-Glow™ complex, plus avocado, chia seed, and coconut oils, for a nourished, hydrated glow.
- Night only wash off Face & Body Lotion: Get the signature St.Tropez tan in a flash with One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion. This innovative and easy-to-use tanning essential delivers a natural-looking, streak-free golden tan that lasts for up to 24 hours—or until you decide to wash it off. Containing RAINMAC technology with silicon coated pigments, it ensures color will not streak or run even when wet. The advanced formula does not transfer onto clothes or sheets but can be easily removed with just soap and water. Skin is left smooth, hydrated,and perfectly luminous.