Sunless tanning: What you need to know
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on May 14, 2021.
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.
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 layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan. The coloring typically wears off after a few days.
Will sunless tanning products protect you from a sunburn?
Most sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen. If a product contains sunscreen, the sunscreen will be effective only for a couple of hours. 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 DHA 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 and don't get the product in your eyes, nose or mouth. If you're going to a sunless tanning booth, ask how your eyes, mouth, nose and ears will be protected and how you will be protected from inhaling the tanning spray.
What's the best way to apply a sunless tanning lotion?
For best results, follow the package directions. In general:
- Exfoliate first. Use a washcloth or exfoliating product to remove excess dead skin cells. Spend a little extra time on 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, then legs and torso. Wash your hands with soap 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 or apply a little lotion on top of the self-tanner.
- Take time to dry. Wait at least 10 minutes before getting dressed. Wear loose clothing and try to avoid sweating.