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?
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 tanning solutions is called dihydroxyacetone. Also known as DHA, it is a simple carbohydrate that can be derived by the fermentation of glycerin, and 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, the stratum corneum. This generates pigments called melanoidins, which darken your skin colour (imitating the natural tan created by melanin).
This process is known as the “Maillard reaction.” It starts within two to four hours after applying DHA, and continues for up to 72 hours.
During this time, you will notice a distinctive odour on your skin, because of the chemical reaction taking place. All DHA-based formulas produce this telltale smell, by the way, but brands may use various fragrances to try to mask it.
Is Self-Tanner Bad for You?
So what’s the problem with self-tanner? As you may have guessed, it’s the active ingredient, DHA, and the chemical reaction that takes place after you apply it to your skin.
What you may not know is that this Maillard reaction also occurs whenever you cook food at high temperatures—like when you caramelize sugar, toast bread or grill meat. So you may be avoiding the sun, but when you use self-tanner, you’re still roasting your skin!
Here’s what can happen as a result:
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.
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.”
2. Induces Skin Aging and DNA Damage
DHA also causes DNA damage, and has even been found to promote cell death. 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.”
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.
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. Furthermore, we know that virtually all self-tanners contain masking fragrances, and fragrance is the number one cause of skin reactions.
⚠️ 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.
What Is “DHA-Free” Self-Tanner?
You may be wondering about “DHA-free” self-tanners—which promise a gentler, more gradual glow—and whether they’re any better than regular tanning products.
The most well-known DHA-free tanners were offered by DECIEM: The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil and Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster. However, both brands have now been discontinued. You can still find DHA-free tanning treatments from a few smaller companies, such as Catrice Natural Tan Serum, available in Europe.
When The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil and Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster were still around, DECIEM described them as containing “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, if you look at the ingredients list of any DHA-free self-tanner, you’ll see that the active ingredient is something called erythrulose—and it’s essentially the same thing as DHA!
According to The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: “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. Erythrulose, however, has also been shown to increase production of free radicals similar to the effect seen with DHA.”
In other words, DHA-free formulas are no safer than regular self-tanners. They trigger the same cascade of free radicals, and have the same concerns regarding skin aging, DNA damage and lowered vitamin D production.
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.
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.
2. Protect Self-Tanned Skin with Sunscreen
If you do need to go out in the sun within four hours of applying self-tanner, be religious about wearing a sunscreen with broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection.
Make sure the tanner has absorbed and is dry to the touch (otherwise the sunscreen could interfere with colour development), and then apply an SPF 30 formula with at least 15-20% zinc oxide.
Pipette Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 is one of my favourites for all-over—it’s highly protective, lightweight and very affordable. You can find more product recommendations in my guides to the best mineral sunscreens and best mineral sunscreens for body.
3. Apply Topical Antioxidants
Some experts suggest that applying an antioxidant to your skin before and after using self-tanner could help to minimize free radical damage from DHA.
Vitamins A, B3, C and E are among the best antioxidants to choose from.
Chances are, you’re already using an antioxidant treatment on your face. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is the gold standard, but Timeless and Paula’s Choice have similar, less expensive formulas. If you can’t tolerate L-ascorbic acid, try a niacinamide (vitamin B3) serum. I recommend Allies of Skin, Paula’s Choice and The Inkey List.
Niacinamide is the ideal way to protect your body from free radicals. I recommend Paula’s Choice 5% Niacinamide Body Serum, which gives you an impressive 5% concentration in a lightweight, milky serum.
4. Take an Antioxidant
An antioxidant supplement may also help to neutralize the free radicals generated by using self-tanner. My top pick would be vitamin E, one of the safest and most beneficial antioxidants to take orally. I look for brands with as few excipients as possible, like Life Extension Super Vitamin E and A.C. Grace Unique 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
Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer is a clean formulation that gives skin a sun-kissed glow for up to 24 hours. It comes in one transfer-resistant shade with barely-there light-reflecting particles.
Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer
Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer comes in one full-coverage shade, which lasts up to 24 hours and is transfer-resistant. It has a built-in sponge applicator, so it couldn’t be easier to glide on.