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The Truth About Self-Tanner: How It Works, How It Affects Your Skin and How You Can Make It Less Damaging

It’s not quite as safe as you think.
How does self tanner work

We all know that the sun is our skin’s greatest enemy. So if you want the look of a right-off-the-beach tan, the only safe way to get it is from a tube 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. But you might be surprised to learn how self-tanner actually works—and how it, too, may harm your skin.

In this tutorial, you’ll find out about the chemical reaction triggered by self-tanner, whether it’s bad for you, and what you can do to safeguard your skin. I’ve also got the best instant bronzing alternatives (which I personally prefer!).

Keep reading to find out the truth about self-tanner.

How Does Self-Tanner Work?

Is Self-Tanner Bad for You?

1. Generates Free Radicals

The Maillard reaction that is triggered by self-tanners generates free radicals. These are highly reactive molecules that can attack your cell structures, degrade your collagen and elastin fibers, and promote skin aging and wrinkle formation.[4][5]

And it gets worse. If you have unprotected sun exposure after applying self-tanner, even more free radicals will be produced. This is because UV rays make DHA more unstable. 

In one study that compared bare skin to skin that was treated by self-tanner, the findings were shocking: “In DHA-treated skin, more than 180% additional radicals were generated during sun exposure with respect to untreated skin.”[6]

2. Induces Skin Aging and DNA Damage

The free radicals generated by DHA cause oxidative stress, which accelerates skin aging. Think: fine lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, roughness and uneven skin tone.[4][7]

DHA also causes DNA damage, and has even been found to promote cell death.[8][9] This has lead some researchers to question its long-term safety. One 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.”[8]

3. Lowers Vitamin D Production

Regular use of self-tanner can reduce your body’s production of vitamin D. In one study, researchers exposed DHA-treated skin to controlled levels of UVB radiation. They found that the melanoidin pigments created by the DHA inhibited the formation of vitamin D.[10]

This could be an issue because vitamin D is needed to keep our bones, muscles and teeth healthy, and may even reduce cancer risk.

4. Irritates Skin

For some people, self-tanner may also lead to skin irritation. One study found that regular applications of DHA caused severe contact dermatitis and a damaged stratum corneum.[11] Furthermore, we know that virtually all self-tanners contain masking fragrances, and fragrance is the number one cause of skin reactions.

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

⚠️ All of these concerns apply to spray tans, too. In fact, spray tans are even riskier than self-tanners. When DHA is inhaled or exposed to mucous membranes, it can cause serious harm to your respiratory system, and may even promote certain cancers.[3]

What Is “DHA-Free” Self-Tanner?

How to Use Self-Tanner Safely

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to limit some of the side effects when using a self-tanner.

1. Apply Self-Tanner At Night

Since UV rays amplify free radical production on DHA-treated skin, you should always avoid unprotected sun exposure after putting on self-tanner. Researchers have found that the excess free radical production is reduced after four hours.[13]

For this reason, I recommend doing your self-tanner application at night. By morning, you won’t need to worry about the excess free radicals.

Pipette Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50
Paula's Choice 5 Niacinamide Body Serum
Life Extension Super Vitamin E

5. Use Self-Tanner Less Often

You can easily minimize your risk if you save self-tanner for special occasions only, not every day.

The Best Alternatives to Self-Tanner

There’s one more way you can avoid the harmful effects of self-tanner—and that’s by switching to a wash-off bronzing product instead. 

There’s a new generation of face and body bronzers that deliver instant, long-lasting colour to mimic a natural tan. There’s no waiting around for the formula to develop, no icky self-tanner smell, and (in most cases) no rubbing off onto your clothes.

You can layer them over bare skin, your regular skincare products, or sunscreen (they’ll even help to counteract any white cast). Then, whenever you’re ready, wash them right off with soap and water. 

Here are the best self-tanner alternatives to try:

Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer
Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer