Sunless tanning: What you need to know
Don't want to expose your skin to the sun's damaging rays, but still want that sun-kissed glow? Consider sunless tanning products. Understand how these products work — and the importance of applying them carefully and correctly.
Medically reviewed on May 14, 2018
How do sunless tanning products work?
Sunless tanning products, also called self-tanners, can give your skin a tanned look without exposing it to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Sunless tanning products are commonly sold as lotions, creams and sprays you apply to your skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available.
The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is the color additive, dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied, dihydroxyacetone reacts with dead cells in the skin's surface to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. The coloring typically wears off after a few days.
Most sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen. If a product contains sunscreen, it will only be effective for a couple of hours. The color produced by the sunless tanning product won't protect your skin from UV rays. If you spend time outdoors, sunscreen remains essential.
What about sunless tanning pills?
Sunless tanning pills, which typically contain the color additive canthaxanthin, aren't safe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage and impaired vision.
Is sunless tanning safe?
Topical sunless tanning products are generally considered safe alternatives to sunbathing, as long as they're used as directed.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved dihydroxyacetone for external application to the skin. However, the FDA states that DHA shouldn't be inhaled or applied to areas covered by mucous membranes, including the lips, nose or areas around the eyes because the risks of doing so are unknown.
If you're using a sunless tanning product at home, follow the directions on the label carefully and don't get the product in your eyes, nose or mouth. If you're going to a sunless tanning (spray tanning) booth, ask how your eyes, lips, nose and ears will be protected and how you will be protected from inhaling the tanning spray. Options for protecting yourself while applying or having a sunless tanning spray applied include wearing goggles, nose plugs or a nose filter and lip balm.
What's the best way to apply a sunless tanning lotion?
- Exfoliate first. Before applying a sunless tanning product exfoliate your skin with a washcloth. This will help remove excess dead skin cells. Spend a little extra time exfoliating areas with thick skin, such as your knees, elbows and ankles. Dry your skin.
- Apply in sections. Massage the product into your skin in a circular motion. Apply the tanner to your body in sections, such as your arms, legs and torso. Wash your hands with soap and water after each section to avoid discoloring your palms. Lightly extend the product from your ankles to your feet and from your wrists to your hands.
- Wipe joint areas. Knees, elbows and ankles tend to absorb more of sunless tanning products. To dilute the tanning effect in these areas, gently rub them with a damp towel.
- Take time to dry. Wait at least 10 minutes before getting dressed. Wear loose clothing and try to avoid sweating.