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updated August 22, 2012

Sunless tanning: A safe alternative to sunbathing

  • SUMMARY
  • Sunless tanning is a practical alternative to sunbathing. Find out how sunless tanning products work, including possible risks and how to get the best results.
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MayoClinic Logo
Filed under: Boomer's Health

(MayoClinic.com) Don't want to expose your skin to the sun's damaging rays, but still want that sun-kissed glow? Consider striking a compromise with sunless tanning products. Start by understanding how sunless tanning products work — and the importance of applying them correctly and carefully.

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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 creams, gels, lotions and sprays you apply to your skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available at many salons, spas and tanning businesses.

The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied to the skin, DHA reacts with dead cells in the outermost layer of skin to temporarily darken the skin's appearance. The coloring doesn't wash off, but it gradually fades as the dead skin cells slough off — typically within a few days.

Most sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen. If you spend time outdoors, sunscreen remains essential.

What about sunless tanning pills?

Sunless tanning pills, which typically contain the color additive canthaxanthin, are unsafe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange and cause hives. Sunless tanning pills can also cause liver damage and lead to the formation of crystals in the retina of the eye (canthaxanthin retinopathy).

What can you expect from sunless tanning products?

Sunless tanning products typically go on clear. It usually takes about an hour to see results. Full color typically appears within eight to 24 hours. People who have medium complexions without freckles often get the best results.

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 hasn't approved the use of DHA for application to areas near the eyes, mouth or nose. If you're using a sunless tanning cream, it's easy to avoid these areas. With spray tanning, this might be more difficult — since the product is usually applied to the whole body to ensure even color. Spray tanning might also cause you to inhale the product.

Further research is needed to determine the risks — if any — of this type of exposure. In the meantime, protect your eyes, mouth and nose when spray tanning and avoid inhaling the product. Be sure to wear goggles and nose plugs, and hold your breath while the spray is being applied.

What's the best way to promote an even-looking tan with sunless tanning products?

Sunless tanning products can provide an even, natural-looking tan if they're applied correctly and carefully. For best results, follow the package directions carefully. In general:

  • Exfoliate first. Before using a sunless tanning product, wash your skin with a wash cloth or sponge to remove excess dead skin cells. If you typically shave your legs, do so before you apply the sunless tanning product for an even application.
  • Use a light touch. Apply the sunless tanning product evenly and lightly. Use sparingly on dry or thickened skin, such as over your ankles, knees and elbows. If necessary, ask someone to help you apply sunless tanner to hard-to-reach spots.
  • Save the tops of your hands for last. After you apply the product to your face and body, wash your hands with soap and water to avoid coloring your palms. Be sure to remove any product from under your fingernails. Then use a cotton ball to apply the sunless tanner to the top of each hand.
  • Take time to dry. Wait to dress until the sunless tanner dries completely.

Remember, most sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen. If you spend time outdoors, protect your skin with generous amounts of sunscreen.

©1998-2013 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.
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