Considered a safe alternative to sunbathing by those who want that sun-kissed glow, self-tanning has actually nothing to do with the real mechanism of natural tanning and is far from safe.
Self-tanning is a coloration of your dead cells
The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is the color additive, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple carbohydrate that can be derived chemically or from natural sources such as beets and cane sugar. When applied, dihydroxyacetone reacts with dead cells in the skin's surface to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. This process is known as the "Maillard reaction." It starts within two to four hours, and continues for up to 72 hours. The (fake) tan fades as the dead cells are shed, usually within 10 days. Unlike a naturally obtained tan (ie after sun exposure), the color produced by the sunless tanning product won't protect your skin from UV rays.
Moreover, the DHA may cause a number of problems. This “Maillard reaction” is actually the same thing that happens when you caramelize sugar or grill meat… close your eyes and imagine it’s your skin. This is what DHA does:
- Generates free radicals and accelerates aging
- Amplifies sun damage: don’t ever go in the sun after you apply a DHA based self-tanner; to be on the safe side, wait at least 24-48h
- Inhibits vitamin D production
- Can cause irritations and inflammation (contact dermatitis)
- Can harm the respiratory system, if inhaled on a regular basis (spray tanners)
And what about DHA free self-tanners?
They actually contain erythrulose, which is similar in composition to DHA. It is found naturally in red raspberries, and that’s maybe why the tan produced is more red than brown in appearance. Erythrulose takes longer to produce a tan, and the resulting tan fades quicker than with DHA. However, when erythrulose is combined with DHA, the tan reportedly lasts longer, fades better, and provides a more attractive tone. BUT is has also been shown to increase production of free radicals similar to the effect seen with DHA.
So if you thought self-tanning rhymed with safe-tanning, we're sorry but no. It's much safer and healthier for you to get a natural glow from sunlight, as long as you remain reasonable and mindful. Our free app Sun Keeper is here to guide you, as always!