The message is really clear: sun tanning is bad. Everyone says so, from our mothers to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tanning in the sun increases the risk of wrinkles and the risk of skin cancer, including the most dangerous kind, melanoma.
So, does this mean we have to cover up with head-to-toe clothing, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and only leave our homes slathered with sunscreen? In reality, this is very hard to do. Being out in the sun makes many of us feel much better. This is particularly true for my patients, who can be stuck indoors during much of their treatment. They dream of the comfort and fun of summer days in the sun. How else do you regain a healthy-looking glow that you badly need and totally deserve? Turns out we really don’t need the sun to be tan anymore. And, we can still enjoy being out in the sun for its warmth and therapeutic effects in safe ways.
Here’s an important solution for safe tanning: sunless tanners. This category of personal products includes lotions, gels, and sprays that temporarily bronze the skin — and can look just as good as a “real” tan. They provide the warm, tan glow that we associate with good health (even though we certainly know better now). And sunless tanners are generally considered safe, as long as you observe some basic guidelines. Read on to learn more.
Today’s sunless tanners have come a long way since they were first introduced by Coppertone in the 1960s under the name “Quick Tan” or “QT.” Now they’re easier to apply, more natural looking, and longer lasting. They’re available in a variety of formulations: liquids, lotions, sprays, and mousses. And there’s a spending range for everyone’s comfort level — from drug store bargains to department store splurges. Most sunless tanners, though, still rely on the very same FDA-approved tanning agent used in QT: dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive made by fermenting glycerin, often from natural sources such as sugar beets.
DHA reacts in a nontoxic way with the skin’s top layer, producing bronze-toned pigments. The artificial tan starts to appear in 2 to 4 hours and continues to darken for 24 to 72 hours. The depth of color depends upon a product’s DHA concentration, which can range from 1% to 15%. Like a regular suntan, a DHA-induced tan fades away gradually as dead skin cells naturally flake off. A sunless tan won’t sweat off or wash away with soap or water.
Sometimes DHA is combined with another plant-based color additive called erythrulose, which reacts in a similar way to bronze the skin. Erythrulose can help the tan last longer and reduces the chances for streaky color.
DHA-based sunless tanning is considered safe for external use and is even recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation, American Academy of Dermatology Association, and the American Medical Association. But there are some safety issues to consider when using these tanners:
• DHA can trigger a rash in some people. Most adverse reactions to sunless tanning products, however, are due to other ingredients, including added fragrance, parabens, or retinol (vitamin A). When choosing a sunless tanner, avoid tanners that contain these and other suspect ingredients. For more information on additional chemicals to avoid in cosmetics and body products, read The Possible Price of Beauty and Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Exposure to Chemicals in Cosmetics.
• Don’t forget that just because sunless tanners darken your skin, you still need to wear sunscreen. Sunless tanners may even temporarily increase the risk of skin free radical damage when you’re outside. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage a cell’s genetic parts and may cause the cell to grow out of control. Using an antioxidant cream — one that contains vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid, for example — may limit this free radical production. Research has shown that antioxidant creams can provide some protection from sun damage and reduce cancer-associated mutations in skin cells. These creams are widely available. Check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database for safety ratings – just type “antioxidant cream” into the search box. And you can learn how to choose a sunscreen in our Have Fun in the Sun column.
• Avoid spray or mist sunless tanners. DHA is only approved for external use. It is not FDA-approved for use in all-over sprays or mists, including in commercial spray tanning booths, due to the increased potential for inhalation or eye or mucous membrane exposure.
Tips for application
For most people, the main barrier to using sunless tanners is the application process. It can be messy and time-consuming — and you might be afraid of the streaky skin look. I asked some of my friends who are practiced in the art of sunless tanning for some tips on making the process easier and even. Here is what they said:
• Before using any self tanner, test it on a small patch of skin. If you’re allergic to the product, it’s better to find out before you use it all over your body.
• Apply tanner at night. This gives it plenty of time to work its magic and also gives you the chance to shower away any product odors in the morning — without fear of washing off the product prematurely. The downside of this approach, however, is that the tanner may stain your bedsheets. To avoid this, some expert sunless tanners suggest lightly dusting your skin with baby powder made from cornstarch (don’t use talc – it’s not safe to breathe in the dust) after the tanner has dried. Any stains on the sheets usually disappear after spin through the washing machine.
• Before applying sunless tanner, take a shower or bath and wash your skin with a scrub to remove old, dead skin cells. (This is called “exfoliation.”) Then dry your skin thoroughly.
• Stand on an old towel when applying to reduce the chances of accidentally staining new towels or the bathroom carpet.
• Start applying the product at your feet and work your way upward. Do this in front of a mirror to help see what you’re doing.
• After applying tanner, rub a dab of moisturizing lotion into creases. Pay particular attention to the ankles, backs of knees, and insides of elbows and wrists, where too much tanner can accumulate.
• When finished, wash hands thoroughly, particularly palms and nail beds, where the product can settle.
• Wait 10 to 15 minutes to let the product dry before putting on clothing.
• Reapplying once a week is often enough to maintain color.
• Be patient. It may take a few tries to get the application process right. You may have to try a few products before you find one that works for you.
Other ways to get a sunless tan
If this all sounds like too much trouble, you do have other options. Just don’t be tempted to try tanning pills. Although there are pills on the market that claim to make skin look tan if you take them, none of them are FDA-approved. Their effectiveness is doubtful and some may even be risky for your health.
Instead, try using temporary bronzers. Temporary bronzers require less commitment than DHA-based sunless tanners, since they can be washed off with soap and water. They’re available in powder, liquid, gel, mousse, or spray form, and applied like makeup. In the summer, I like to brush a little powder bronzer on my cheeks, nose, and temples to warm up my face, but I know some people who use it all over, including on their legs when they’re wearing dresses or shorts, too. I don’t use this stuff on my legs. I’ve found that wearing certain colors like raspberry pink shorts, capris, or skirts is flattering to my pale and pasty legs.
Since the color is not permanent, temporary bronzers can transfer to clothing, but wearing dark colors can minimize rub-off from being noticeable. As with other tanners, it’s important to use care when applying to avoid looking overdone or splotchy. Also, as always, avoid temporary bronzers that contain fragrance, parabens, or other suspect ingredients.
Do you have advice on making sunless tans looks natural? Are there other ways to improve the application process? If you have tips, please send them in. Also, how do you feel about looking tan in the summer? Have you embraced tan-free skin or do you have difficulty overcoming the urge to tan in the sun? I’d love to hear what you think!