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How does self-tanner work

How does self-tanner work

There are a few ways to get a sunless tan, from bronzers to tanning pills and even sunbeds. However we never condone the use of sunbeds, as studies have proven they damage the skin. According to this article you are 67% more likely to develop skin cancer each time you use a sunbed. 

We explain in this article why tanning from the UV rays is so damaging.

Therefore, we won’t cover sunbeds here and will just focus on self-tanners, bronzers, and tanning pills. In this article we’re going to explain how these methods work and whether they are safe for you.

Firstly, we will go over the three main ways to get a sunless tan before explaining how each one works.

Self-tanners – These can be a lotion, drops or a mousse which you apply to your skin or, in the case of drops, add to moisturizer before rubbing it into your skin.

Whilst they are all slightly different, the one thing they have in common is they all contain that key ingredient, Dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

Tanning pills – These pills contain an ingredient called Canthaxanthin. They are taken daily and eventually give you a long-lasting bronze colour.  

Bronzers – Bronzers are effectively make-up designed specifically to give you a more tanned look. They are typically powders but can also be moisturisers and, when applied correctly, they create a tanned appearance on your skin. At the end of the day, you can wash your face with soap and this tanned appearance will wash away too.


How do self-tanners work?

Self-tanners are largely considered to be the most effective and popular, partly because they give a long-lasting tan without any health risks or side-effects, and yet many don’t actually know how they work.

These self-tanners all contain DHA, which is a colourless sugar that reacts with the dead skin cells on the upper layer of your skin causing them to change colour. This reaction is called the Maillard reaction and is the same type of reaction that occurs in baking and roasting food such as meat during cooking.

The reaction leads to the production of melanoidins, which are chemicals that create that tanned appearance.

It can take around 4 hours for the colour to take effect due to the time needed for the DHA to react with the amino acids on your skin. This is why there is often a “colour guide” in self-tanners. This is just colouring in the solution which allows you to see where you’re rubbing the tanner. When you shower, the colour guide comes off and only the developed tan is left.

Your body is constantly shedding skin cells. In fact, every day millions are being shed. This means that you have an entirely new upper layer to your skin every 35-45 days!

As a result, your tan can’t last forever, and a self-tan usually disappears within 7 days as the dead skin cells are shed.

Are self-tanners safe?

Sunless tanning products applied to the skin are generally considered safe, especially when compared to the skin damage suffered due to prolonged exposure to the sun. The FDA has approved them for external application to the skin, however inhalation of the mist should be avoided.

To make sure you apply the sunless tanner safely, follow the instructions on the bottle and do not apply the product to the eyes, nose, or mouth.

Tanning pills

How do tanning pills work?

All tanning pills contain a chemical called Canthaxanthin. This chemical is the most used colour additive in a wide variety of foods and creates an orange and brown colour. For foods, only a small amount is used and so when ingested in large quantities, it doesn’t change the colour of your skin.

How do tanning pills work?

However tanning pills contain huge amounts of Canthaxanthin, so when ingested daily, the chemical is deposited all over your body. This includes your skin which eventually turns a brown colour because of the deposits.

Are tanning pills safe?

While the FDA has approved Canthaxanthin for ingestion via foods, it has not been approved for ingestion as a tanning agent. The doses of Canthaxanthin are much higher in tanning pills and so the long-term effects on your health are not fully known.

Tanning pills have been linked to some severe side effects such as Hepatitis and Canthaxanthin Retinopathy, a condition where the retina of the eye begins to have a buildup of yellow deposits.


How do bronzers work?

Bronzers are the simplest of the sunless tanners to understand. Bronzers are basically a form of makeup which can come in the form of powder, cream, liquid, or gel. You add it to your face, neck or even the body, and it gives you a temporary glow until you wash it off.

Are bronzers safe?

Bronzers do not pose any risk to your health and are considered safe to use.

They should only be applied to the skin and should never be applied on your lips, mouth or nose and certainly not around the eyes.

Will sunless tanning products protect you from a sunburn?

The aim of sunless tanning products is to darken your skin without exposing it to UV rays. It’s great because you don’t need to spend time in the sun to get a suntan!

However, they will not protect your skin from the sun, and you will be just as likely to get a sunburn when wearing fake tan. It is therefore recommended that you apply plenty of Sunscreen when out in the sun to avoid get sunburnt.

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