Fake It, Don’t Bake It

Meet Today’s Sunless Tanners

by Farah K. Ahmed

Over the last two decades, public awareness of the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun and tanning beds has considerably grown. Programs such as The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Go With Your Own GlowTM campaign have also stressed the beauty of one’s natural skin color, and many celebrities have opted for and publicly expressed the value of untanned skin. Nonetheless, the desire for tanned skin persists, especially in teens and 20-somethings, and this appears to be reflected by soaring melanoma figures, now six times higher for young adults than they were 40 years ago. Fortunately, sunless tanners (aka self-tanners or UV-free tanners) have made significant advancements since the 1980s, when they were notorious for producing unrealistic color, not to mention orange-streaked palms. For those who recognize the dangers of UVR, but still want a golden glow, it pays to become acquainted with today’s much-improved sunless tanners and learn how they differ from UV tanning.

What Is a UV Tan?

Suntans, sunburns, and premature skin aging can all be caused by overexposure to cancer-causing ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA and UVB) rays. Both types of rays damage the skin cells’ DNA, prompting melanocytes (skin cells in the top layer of skin, the epidermis) to produce more melanin, the pigment that gives our eyes and skin their color.

UVA oxidizes the existing melanin, causing immediate pigment darkening. [Figure 1] UVB causes inflammation, which releases new melanin to neighboring epidermal cells, and in about 72 hours, this leads to further tanning that lasts much longer than the UVA-triggered tanning. All of this melanin production signals that DNA damage has already occurred: it is a far from perfect attempt by the body to protect the skin from further damage. Nonetheless, the damage from repeated UV exposures keeps accumulating and can ultimately lead to skin cancer.


Figure 1: Difference in color source and distribution, suntan vs. sunless tanning with DHA

What Is a Sunless Tan?

With sunless tanning, no such damage occurs. The “tan” from most sunless tanners comes from the coloring agent dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple carbohydrate. DHA binds to the proteins on the skin’s surface, forming brownish melanin-like molecules called “melanoids” that make the skin appear tan. Unlike UV, DHA does not penetrate beyond the skin surface. As can be seen in Figure 1, it is active only in the stratum corneum, the epidermis’s protective outermost layer of dead skin cells. Antioxidants such as caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE) may be added to the self-tanner1,2 to mitigate the artificial-looking orange or yellow color DHA can produce on the skin and achieve a more natural tone.3

Which Type Do I Use?

Today, sunless tanners are available in creams, lotions, gels, pump sprays, aerosols, and wipes. Advances in technology have made all of them easier than ever to apply, and more capable of providing natural-looking color,4 but each formulation offers different advantages. Creams and lotions are the most popular due to ease of use; they don’t dry too quickly, so they allow users to adjust the amount on the skin to assure even application.5 They are also hydrating. Gel self-tanners often absorb quickly, but may be too drying for some people. Pump sprays and aerosols, while easy to apply, still need to be rubbed in to assure uniform application. They should be used in well-ventilated rooms, since the effects of inhaling them are unknown. Wipes are easy to apply and convenient to carry around, but if not applied carefully, may produce patches or streaks of color.

A Positive Trend: The Growth in Sunless Tanning

Research published in Archives of Dermatology in 2010 showed that encouraging women to use sunless tanning products may reduce UV tanning if the women are warned about the risks of tanning.6 Thus, the self-tanning market is poised for growth, with self-tanning products for home use and at salons offering spray tans. Today the online retailer Drugstore. com sells 89 different self-tanners, from products for people with very light skin, to moisturizers that gradually deepen your skin tone, to tanners that make the skin shimmer.7 If you want a bronzed look, elf-tanners offer a safe, effective alternative to UV tanning.


  • Prep Your Skin

    Most self-tanning products recommend that you exfoliate the skin prior to applying the self-tanner. After exfoliating, apply a moisturizer — these two steps should help ensure an even tan.

  • Follow the Directions on the Packaging

    For example, wait at least 12 hours after shaving before applying self-tanner, and don’t use on skin with active eczema.

  • Be Patient

    Self-tanners can take 30-60 minutes to produce visible color on the skin; the color usually lasts about five days. Some products are formulated with colorants such as caramel to impart an immediate bronzing effect, but the instant color is temporary and rinses off easily.

  • Repeat as Necessary

    Generally, you’ll apply the self-tanner daily for 2-3 days until the desired color is achieved, and then reapply it about three times a week thereafter to maintain the shade.

  • Use Sunscreen

    Although at high concentrations (20 percent) DHA provides some limited UVA protection,8 sunless tanners are not sun-protective; use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15+ every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher; reapply every two hours and immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. Even if your self-tanner contains an SPF 15+ sunscreen, reapply a regular sunscreen after two hours.

  • Go to a Pro

    For those who like the bronzed look but are in a hurry, many salons offer spray tanning services. Many provide automated application of high concentration, no-rub, aerosolized non-UV tanning products, while at others, employees supply a customized airbrush tan.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of the Personal Care Products Council or The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Farah K. Ahmed is Vice President of the Personal Care Products Council, www.personalcarecouncil.org.

Published on March 2, 2013


  1. Grunberger D, Banerjee R, Eisinger K, et al. Preferential cytotoxicity on tumor cells by caffeic acid phenethyl ester isolated from propolis. Experientia Mar 15, 1988; 44(3): 230-232.
  2. Sud’ina GF, Mirzoeva OK, Pushkareva MA, et al. Caffeic acid phenethyl ester as a lipoxygenase inhibitor with antioxidant properties. FEBS Lett 1993; 329(1-2):21-24.
  3. Muizzuddin N, Marenus KD, Maes DH. Tonality of suntan vs.sunless tanning. Skin Res Technol 2000; 6(4):199-204.4 Dobos K. Formulating sunless tanning products with DHA: current challenges. Cosmetics & Toiletries 2010; 125:42-45.
  4. Galdi A, Foltis P, Oresajo C. Sunless tanning products. In: Draelos ZD, ed. Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010:139-149.
  5. Pagoto SL, Schneider KL, Oleski J, et al. The sunless study: A beach randomized trial of a skin cancer prevention intervention promoting sunless tanning. Arch Dermatol 2010; 146(9):979-984.doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2010.203
  6. Drugstore.com. Accessed March 26, 2012. http://www.drugstore.com/search/search_results.asp?Ntx=mode+matchallpartial&Ntk=All&Go.y=0&Go.x=0&N=4294893468&in _ dim _search=1&Ntt=sunscreen&srchtree=1. Accessed March 26, 2012.
  7. Faurschou A, Wulf HC. Durability of the sun protection factor provided by dihydroxyacetone. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed 2004; 20(5):239-42.