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How Do Self-Tanners Work?

by Staff Writer
The dangers of tanning have been fully established by medical science, showing that just one indoor tanning session can increase a person's risk of developing various types of skin cancer by 29 to 67 percent. People who tan frequently receive 12 times the amount of ultraviolet A (UVA) exposure than other individuals, putting them at a much higher risk for developing both skin cancer and premature signs of aging. Self-tanners are the answer for those who are concerned about the dangers of tanning but don't want to give up having a glowing tan. Today's sunless tanners can produce very natural results due to their scientifically advanced formulas.

The Science of DHA

The most commonly used ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone or DHA. This carbohydrate was first studied as a treatment for a rare disease, as doctors believed it would help children with the disease store glucose in their bodies more efficiently. During the study, it was discovered that DHA temporarily discolored the skin if it dripped onto the tissue or was spilled. Scientists now understand that DHA reacts with the amino acids found in skin tissue, producing a temporary chemical change that results in darkening. The color develops gradually over a period of hours and will not wash off. Then, it fades within a few days, and DHA must be reapplied to restore the color.

Erythrulose in Self-Tanners

One of the main problems with early self-tanning formulas was that they produced unnatural color, making the skin more orange than golden brown. Scientists at skin care companies have now optimized sunless tanners, allowing them to produce a more natural color. A common method of getting these more natural results is adding a carbohydrate called erythrulose to formulas. This ingredient acts similarly to DHA but produces color more slowly. By mixing erythrulose and DHA, the makers of self-tanners can better control the development of color and promote longer lasting results.

Additional Ingredients to Enhance Color

Sunless tanners may contain other ingredients that enhance skin color. Walnut extract is sometimes added to formulas due to its ability to stain the skin a dark hue. The ingredient does not chemically interact with the skin: it simply leaves behind a dark color that can enhance a tan. Self-tanners may also feature cosmetic pigments similar to the ones found in foundations. These ingredients wash off when you bathe but can help you see where you've applied the self-tanner to avoid missed spots. In addition, cosmetic pigments provide immediate color while you wait for your skin to darken due to the effects of DHA.

Getting Best Results with Self-Tanner

For the most natural looking tan with a sunless product, always tan freshly cleansed skin and for even better results, use an exfoliator. This will eliminate dead skin cells, providing a more even finish. Your skin should be completely dry when you apply the product. If you're using a lotion or cream, add some water before using the formula on your elbows and knees, and always wash your hands after you apply any self-tanner. Allow your skin to dry before you put on clothes and don't bathe for a few hours after application.

Keep in mind that self-tanners do not provide protection against the sun. You'll still need to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen when you're outdoors showing off your gorgeous sunless tan.