Sunless tanning is a widely used alternative to baking in the sun to achieve a sun-kissed glow. Most Americans are aware of the dangers of exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight, but there is little information available about sunless tanning. If you’re considering use of a sunless tanning product, it’s important to understand how they work and the need to apply the product carefully and correctly.
Self-tanners: how do they work?
Sunless tanning products produce a tan look without UV light exposure. They are usually sold as a spray or a lotion applied to the skin, but there are also professional spray-on tan services available at beauty salons and spas. The products most commonly used in sunless tanning products have a color additive known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with dead cells on the surface of the skin to produce a dark color that lasts several days. DHA is a sugar that reacts with amino acids in these dead cells to brown your skin. As the skin cells slough and new skin cells regenerate, the tan fades.
Do sunless tanners offer protection from UV radiation?
When using a sunless tanner, it’s important to be aware that it may not contain a sunscreen. Even when a sunless tanner contains a sunscreen, it will on be effective for a few hours after application, so if you’re out of doors, you will have to continue to apply sunscreen to protect your skin. The color you’ll achieve by using a self-tanner does not confer protection against UV rays.
How safe is sunless tanning?
DHA is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for lotions for external application to skin that is not near the eyes, nose, or mouth. When spray tanning, it’s harder to avoid application of sunless tanner in these areas. The FDA has not yet investigated or approved the use of DHA in tanning sprays. Since the risk of exposure in these areas is unknown, it’s probably wise to avoid use of sunless tanner in these areas.
FDA regulations state that commercial facilities should protect clients from exposure to DHA through the lips, eyes, and mucous membranes and from ingestion or inhalation of the DHA-containing spray. You should wear goggles and nose plugs when spray tanning, and hold your breath while the spray is applied. It’s a good idea to apply Vaseline to your lips when getting a spray tan.
There are some reports that DHA may have the potential to cause DNA damage, but there is no definitive evidence. However, very high concentrations of DHA, larger than the small amounts found in over-the-counter products, can cause formation of oxygen free radicals, reactive molecules that can damage structures within the cell, including DNA. In general, there’s no evidence that DHA is systemically absorbed through skin applications, but women who are pregnant or nursing should be cautious and may want to consult their obstetrician before deciding to get a spray-tan.
To achieve the best results:
Always follow any package directions when using a topical self-tanning product. If you plan to use a sunless tanning lotion or spray, even application is important. Exfoliation before using the product can help prevent excessive discoloration and streaks, particularly in areas like the knees, elbows, and ankle. When you are applying a self-tanner, work in sections to massage the product into your skin, using a circular motion. After completing application of product to one section, wash your hands carefully with soap and water before moving on to the next. This will prevent discoloration of your palms. When applying a self tanner, finish by lightly extending the tanner from you wrists to your hands and from your ankles to your feet. After you’re through, take a damp towel and gently blot the knees, elbows, and ankles. These areas of thicker skin usually absorb more to the self-tanning cream or lotion. Don’t put your clothes on for at least ten minutes, and then wear only loose garments for the next three hours. Avoid activities that will make you perspire, as this can result in streaks in your color.
Pills for sunless tanning
Pills containing the color additive canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown. They aren’t safe to take in large amounts, which can result in liver damage, impaired vision, or hives.