The Truth About Self-Tanner: How It Works, Why It Can Age Your Skin, and What to Use Instead

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

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 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, can age your skin!

In this tutorial, we will cover:

  • How self-tanner temporarily deepens your skin tone
  • What it's really doing to your skin and body
  • Whether DHA-free formulas are any safer
  • How to make self-tanner less damaging
  • The best alternatives to self-tanner for face and body

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, 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 use various 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?

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 caramelize sugar, toast bread or grill meat. So even though you're avoiding the sun, you're essentially still roasting your skin!

Here's what happens as a result....

Increased Free Radical Production: 

Research has found that the Maillard reaction generates free radicals. These are highly reactive molecules that attack cell structures and degrade collagen and elastin fibers. If you go out in the sun after applying self-tanner, you'll be exposed to even more of them, since UV rays make DHA more unstable. Shockingly, this study found that "in DHA-treated skin, more than 180 percent additional radicals were generated during sun exposure with respect to untreated skin."

Accelerated Skin Aging: 

The free radicals released by DHA cause oxidative stress that can speed along skin aging. Think: fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and sagging.

DNA Damage: 

DHA has also been linked to DNA damage, leading some researchers to question its long-term safety. 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."

Lower Vitamin D Production:

Regular use of self-tanner can reduce your body's vitamin D. According to this study, it is the melanoidin pigments created by DHA that inhibit vitamin D production. This could be an issue because vitamin D is needed to keep our bones, muscles and teeth healthy, and may even reduce cancer risk.

Skin Irritation: 

For some people, self-tanner may even be the culprit behind 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, 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 can even promote certain cancers. 

Is DHA-Free Self-Tanner Any Safer?

So now you're probably wondering about the new "DHA-free" tanners—like The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil and Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster—that promise a gentler, more gradual glow. 

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!

"Erythrulose is similar in composition to DHA," explains this report in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. "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."

And here's the kicker. "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 trigger the same cascade of free radicals, just like regular self-tanners. So they're still linked to skin aging, DNA damage and lowered vitamin D production.

How to Make Self-Tanner Less Damaging

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

Apply It At Night:

Since UV rays amplify free radical production on DHA-treated skin, it's best if you can avoid sun exposure in the first few hours after putting on self-tanner. According to this study, free radical production is reduced after four hours. So I recommend doing your self-tanner application at nighttime. That way, you can let the colour develop on its own, without having to worry about layering a sunscreen over top, and by morning, the likelihood of free radical damage will be much lower.

Protect Your Skin From the Sun:

When you do go out in the sun after using self-tanner, be religious about wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher. My sunscreen ingredients tutorial explains exactly what to look for to ensure you're well-protected. Some suggestions:

Wear An Antioxidant:

Applying an antioxidant to your skin before and after using self-tanner could help to minimize free radical damage, according to this study. L-ascorbic acid (active vitamin C) and niacinamide (vitamin B3) are two of the most powerful antioxidant ingredients that I recommend adding to your routine—although not at the same time, since they don't play well together. Your options are:

  • Vitamin C face serums: Look for a combination of L-ascorbic acid, ferulic acid and vitamin E for maximum potency and stability. SkinCeuticals, Timeless and Paula's Choice are among the best formulas.
  • Vitamin C powders: The Ordinary, True Botanicals and Philosophy all make L-ascorbic acid powders that can be mixed into water-based hydrating serums and creams (with the exception of niacinamide products). You could even mix the powder into a body serum like REN's for an overnight body treatment.
  • Niacinamide face serums: Paula's Choice, The Ordinary and Sobel Skin Rx are just a few of the brands to choose from.
  • Niacinamide powder: The Ordinary has also come out with a pure niacinamide powder, which can be mixed into any non-acidic, water-based serum or cream. 
  • Niacinamide body serum: The niacinamide-based Nécessaire body serum would be great alone or even amped up with some niacinamide powder for a more intensive treatment.

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 and A.C. Grace.

Use It 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. 

The new generation of face and body bronzers are formulated to deliver instant, long-lasting colour that mimics a natural tan. There's no waiting 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

Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer

Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer gives skin a sun-kissed glow that lasts up to 24 hours. It comes in one shade, with light-reflecting particles for a subtly luminous finish. 

St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion

St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face Body Lotion

St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion

St. Tropez One Night Only Wash Off Face & Body Lotion is a tinted lotion that you can use all over for instant colour. It comes in two matte shades, is both transfer-resistant and water-resistant, and lasts up to 24 hours.

Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer

Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer

Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer

Tan-Luxe Instant Hero Skin Perfector Illuminating Wash Off Body Bronzer has a built-in sponge applicator, so it couldn't be easier to glide on. It comes in one full-coverage but light-reflecting shade, which lasts up to 24 hours and is transfer-resistant.

Vita Liberata Body Blur HD Skin Finish

Vita Liberata Body Blur HD Skin Finish

Vita Liberata Body Blur HD Skin Finish

Vita Liberata Body Blur HD Skin Finish is a skin-perfecting BB cream that you can use on both your face and body. It comes in five shades, so there's one for every skin tone, and is spiked with barely-there shimmer that helps to blur imperfections. 

James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan

James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan

James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan

James Read Enhance Body Foundation Wash Off Tan is a tinted lotion for both the face and body. It comes in one shade, which you can adjust by building up in layers (to go deeper) or mixing with your favourite moisturizer (to go lighter). It's also transfer-resistant and water-resistant.

Tarte Better Bod Bronze & Contour

Tarte Better Bod Bronze Contour

Tarte Better Bod Bronze & Contour

Tarte Better Bod Bronze & Contour comes with a mitt to help you achieve the perfect application. There's just one matte shade, a natural bronze, and once it dries down, it becomes waterproof—so you can even wear this while swimming.

Sisley Paris Phyto-Touche Sun Glow Gel

Sisley Paris Phyto-Touche Sun Glow Gel

Sisley Paris Phyto-Touche Sun Glow Gel

Sisley Paris Phyto-Touche Sun Glow Gel is a gel bronzer for the face that melts into your skin so you look naturally tanned. Available in matte or iridescent, the colour is sheer but buildable (so you can apply more where the sun would naturally hit, like across your nose and cheekbones). A little goes a long way!

Marc Jacobs Glow Away Bronzing Coconut Body Stick

Marc Jacobs Glow Away Bronzing Coconut Body Stick

Marc Jacobs Glow Away Bronzing Coconut Body Stick

Marc Jacobs Glow Away Bronzing Coconut Body Stick is a quick way to swipe on tan all over your bod. It's waterproof as well as transfer-resistant, and there are three shades, each with just a trace of shimmer.

Givenchy Mister Healthy Glow Gel

Givenchy Mister Healthy Glow Gel

Givenchy Mister Healthy Glow Gel

Givenchy Mister Healthy Glow Gel is a gel bronzer for your face featuring tiny microspheres of pigment. Upon contact with skin, they burst and release the colour, which is buildable and smudge-proof. The formula is also comprised of more than 75 percent water, so it feels fresh and lightweight.

By Terry Tea to Tan Face & Body

By Terry Tea to Tan Face Body

By Terry Tea to Tan Face & Body

By Terry Tea to Tan Face & Body is spray-on liquid bronzer for the face and body. Depending on whether you shake the formula or let it settle, you can have a matte or shimmery finish. It's also buildable and transfer-resistant.

Conclusion

I hate being 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 getting a suntan. But, as this study found, self-tanner "may cause cell damage via free radical reactions." I don't know about you, but that's reason enough for me to avoid it.

Lucky for us, there's a new generation of wash-off bronzers that give instant, realistic-looking colour with none of the aging side effects. 

And if you just can't part with self-tanner permanently, you can still reduce the harm by applying it at the right time, along with the right products—and as always, protecting your skin from the sun!

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