We all know the sun is our skin's greatest enemy.
So if you're after a golden glow, the only safe way to get it is from a bottle of self-tanner.
Or is it?
There's no question that a fake tan is preferable to lying out in the sun or on a tanning bed and risking skin damage and skin cancer.
But you might be surprised to discover how self-tanner does its job—and how it, too, can have aging effects!
In this tutorial, you will learn:
- How self-tanners temporarily change your skin colour
- What they're really doing to your skin and body
- How to make self-tanner less damaging
- The best alternatives to self-tanner
How Does Self-Tanner Work?
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.
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 fibres. 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 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.
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?
Well, a closer look at their ingredients lists reveals that the active ingredient in DHA-free self-tanners is something called erythrulose.
And what is erythrulose? Essentially the same thing as DHA!
This report explains: "Erythrulose is similar in composition to DHA. It is found naturally in red raspberries. Applied by itself, erythrulose takes longer to produce a tan, and the resulting tan fades quicker. The tan produced is also more red than brown in appearance. However, when combined with DHA, the tan reportedly lasts longer, fades better, and provides a more attractive tone. Erythrulose, however, has also been shown to increase production of free radicals similar to the effect seen with DHA."
So, DHA-free formulas have the same side effects as DHA on your skin!
How to Make Self-Tanner Less Damaging
Okay, let's say you STILL want to go ahead and use self-tanner.
Here's how you might limit some of the damage:
- Protect yourself from the sun: Since UV rays will amplify DHA-induced free radicals, you want to avoid sun exposure on any DHA-treated skin if possible. Otherwise, be religious with a highly protective mineral sunscreen like CyberDerm Simply Zinc Ultra SPF 50 (for face) or Coppertone Pure & Simple Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 (for body). See my mineral sunscreen guide for more product recommendations.
- Wear an antioxidant: This study found that using an antioxidant with DHA products could help minimize free radical damage. Vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid is the strongest and most proven antioxidant. You'll find it in SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, Timeless 20% C + E + Ferulic Acid Serum and Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster. For your body, Thinksport has a sunscreen with ascorbic acid, while Sanitas has a body lotion with the vitamin C derivative tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.
- Take an antioxidant: It may also help to take an oral antioxidant, like vitamin E (which is very safe). I look for brands with as few additives as possible, like Life Extension and A.C. Grace.
- Use it less often: Save self-tanner for special occasions only—not every day.
The Best Alternatives to Self-Tanner
You may not even miss self-tanner after you try some of the products below!
I'm talking about body bronzers and tinted body luminizers that deliver instant, transfer-resistant colour and then wash right off—no DHA or erythrulose required.
Bonus: They have no icky self-tanner smell, either!
Here are the best self-tanner alternatives to try:
Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer
Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer is a new body bronzer in Sephora's Clean Beauty department. It comes in one shade that will suit light to medium skin best. There is a bit of shimmer through it, but it's very subtle.
Vita Liberata Body Blur Instant HD Skin Finish
Vita Liberata Body Blur Instant HD Skin Finish is a light-reflecting BB cream for your face and body. It comes in three shades, Light, Medium and Dark, with barely-there shimmer that helps "blur" imperfections.
James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan
James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan is a water-resistant tinted lotion for face and body. It comes in one shade, but you can mix it with your moisturizer or body lotion for a lighter colour. To go deeper, you simply apply a second layer.
Sol de Janeiro Glowmotions Glow Oil
Sol de Janeiro Glowmotions Glow Oil is a water-resistant tinted luminizer for face and body. The texture is an oil, and there are five shades, two of which have a bronzey tint. You can apply it straight to your body, but for face, it should be mixed with foundation.
Huda Beauty N.Y.M.P.H. Not Your Mama’s Panty Hose All Over Body Highlighter
Huda Beauty N.Y.M.P.H. Not Your Mama's Panty Hose All Over Body Highlighter is a transfer-resistant tinted body luminizer. It comes in three very shimmery shades, and should be buffed on with a brush for best results. You can also mix it with foundation.
NARS Monoï Body Glow
NARS Monoï Body Glow is a cult classic body oil with a sheer bronze tint and fine golden shimmer. The scent of this one is addictive, thanks to the Tahitian monoï oil and notes of frangipani, ylang ylang and vanilla.
St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion
St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion is a water-resistant tinted lotion for face and body. It comes in two shades, Light/Medium and Medium/Dark, and has a matte (not shimmery) finish.
The Body Shop Honey Bronze Tinted Leg Mist
The Body Shop Honey Bronze Tinted Leg Mist is a transfer-resistant tinted gel that you spray onto your legs (although you could apply it elsewhere, too, if you have a friend to help!). It comes in one matte bronze colour.
Tarte Better Bod Bronze & Contour
Tarte Better Bod Bronze & Contour is a waterproof body bronzer that is sold with a mitt to help you achieve the perfect application. It has just one shade, a natural bronze, and is completely matte.
Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Leg Makeup
Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Leg Makeup is a water-resistant and transfer-resistant tinted spray for the legs. This one comes in an impressive six shades, for every skin tone from fair to deep. There are some flecks of shimmer, but it's not that noticeable.
Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Lotion Leg Makeup
Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Lotion Leg Makeup is a water-resistant and transfer-resistant tinted lotion, technically meant for the legs but you could also apply it all-over. It comes in five shades, with no detectable shimmer.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but self-tanner just isn't as safe as we've been led to believe.
Yes, it's way better than unprotected sun exposure. But as this study puts it, self-tanner STILL "may cause cell damage via free radical reactions." I don't know about you, but I find that pretty alarming!
Hopefully, you'll at least consider limiting your use of self-tanners, and taking appropriate precautions when you do choose to apply one.
And if you're at all concerned about protecting your skin from premature aging, I think it's worth it to switch to a wash-off bronzer. There are so many great options now, you can get a naturally sun-kissed look—with none of the scary side effects!
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Do you use self-tanner?
Will you be trying these alternatives instead?