Fake tan offers a great solution to developing a dark tan, without having to set foot into the sun and risking any damage caused by UV rays.
Using a fake tan is a much safer option than lying out in the sun, or in a tanning bed, and gives skin a bronzed glow that lasts for up to 2 weeks.
Self-tanner might be the right option for you, but how does it work? Self-tanners work through an active ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This chemical compound reacts with skin cells to stain the skin, causing a tan to develop. The more DHA contained in a fake tan product, the darker the skin will go.
Understanding how fake tan works will help you better decide if it is the right product for you, and it will help you know how to use them properly, getting the most gorgeous tan possible.
How Fake Tans Work To Tan Skin
Both self-tanning home products and spray tans use DHA, which creates the appearance of tanned skin.
Dihydroxyacetone, DHA, is a simple carbohydrate that can be sourced either chemically or naturally, from natural products such as beets and cane sugar.
The DHA reacts with the amino acid in the top layer of your skin and oxygen in the air, and this generates pigments called melanoidins, which cause the skin to appear brown as they absorb certain wavelengths of light. This process is called the Maillard reaction. It usually only starts around two to four hours after the fake tan product has been applied, and can continue for up to 72 hours.
Only the outer dead skin cells are affected by this reaction, which means that the tan will begin to fade as the skin cells fall away.
No matter the product you use, you will notice a distinctive self-tanning smell during the process, which is due to the chemical reaction. All DHA containing products will emit this smell, but some fake tanning products contain fragrances that work to mask the smell.
Is Fake Tan Safe?
The issues with fake tans are due to DHA, which causes a chemical reaction with the skin. To put it simply, the same chemical reaction, the Maillard reaction, which darkens the skin, is the same that happens when you caramelize sugar or grill meat. So while there is no sun involved, you are essentially still grilling your skin.
Here is what happens when you apply fake tanners containing DHA to your skin:
- Oxidative stress – The reaction from the DHA creates free radicals, which could lead to oxidative stress. Free radicals can attack cell structures and degrade elastin fibers and collagen, which could lead to premature aging, sagging skin, and wrinkles.
- Sun damage – The oxidative stress can be intensified if you go out into the sun after applying a fake tan, as UV rays make DHA more unstable. This means more free radicals are created when there is exposure to the sun, which means more damage to the skin.
- Vitamin D deficiency – By regularly using fake tanners, you may decrease your vitamin D content. The melanoidin pigments which are created by DHA might inhibit vitamin D production in the body.
- Irritation – DHA, and other ingredients found in fake tanners can cause irritation to the skin. Many fake tans contain fragrances to mask the self-tanner smell, and this is one of the main causes of skin irritation with fake tanners. Many fake tanners can also clog pores, which leads to breakouts.
How To Lessen The Effects of DHA
There are some ways to lessen the damaging effect of DHA, making it a safer option than sitting out and tanning in the sun.
Here is how you can limit the damage from DHA:
- You can limit the damage by protecting your skin from the sun. UV rays amplify the production of free radicals, so by simply avoiding the sun, you can reduce the free radicals created. If you cannot avoid stepping into the sun, you should routinely apply strong sunscreen, like an SPF 50, to protect your skin further.
- You can use an antioxidant on your skin, such as vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid, which is a powerful antioxidant. There are also sunscreens which contain ascorbic acid, which protects your skin from damage from the sun, and the free radicals formed.
- One of the simplest ways to lessen damage is to use self-tanner less often, saving it only for special occasions, rather than using it multiple times a week.
Watch this quick video by BytesizeScience on YouTube for a summary of how fake tans work.
Are There DHA Free Fake Tans?
There are now newer fake tan products on the market which are labeled as DHA-free. These are supposed to be gentler and safer alternatives to fake tanning products that contain DHA.
They are said to work by containing a purified keto-sugar which reacts with the amino acids in the skin, which produce a golden tone within 3 days, without any of the negative side-effects associated with DHA.
While this sounds ideal, one needs to have a closer look at the ingredients to figure out whether it is a better option or not.
DHA-free fake tanning products contain erythrulose, which is essentially the same thing as DHA. Erythrulose is found naturally in red raspberries and is very similar in composition to DHA. Applied on its own, erythrulose does take longer to produce a darker tan, and this tan does fade quicker.
My absolute favorite DHA-free body bronzer is this one by the Isle of Paradise.
This ingredient also causes a tan that is more red than brown. However, when combined with DHA, the tan created lasts longer, fades more evenly and gives a better tone.
Erythrulose also causes an increase in the production of free radicals, much like DHA, so they aren’t that much safer.
Caring For A Fake Tan
It is important to remember that you need to practice some aftercare once you have applied your fake tan. Remember that DHA only penetrates the most outer layer of skin, which are mainly dead skin cells.
This is why fake tans don’t last longer than a week, as that is the usual time frame it takes for these dead skin cells to slough off. It doesn’t matter how long the fake tan product claims to last, you cannot stop the natural processes of the skin.
For this reason, it is important to exfoliate the skin well before applying a fake tan. This removes any excess dead skin cells so that the DHA does not stain these built-up skin cells, which could land up in a blotchy tan.
Once you have applied the fake tan, do not get your skin wet for a few hours. Uneven moisture will affect how the reaction happens and could make the tan streaky and patchy.
To keep the tan as even as possible, you should exfoliate very lightly a few days after the tan. The skin cells could build up and this could begin to come off in patches, which will cause an uneven tan.
The most important part of aftercare is to keep your skin moisturized. This will help your tan stick around for longer, and prevent the DHA from drying out your skin. Moisturized skin not only holds a tan better but allows it to fade more evenly as well.
Is a self-tanner safer than a spray tan?
While a spray tan might be easier for some, as you are having a professional apply the formula to your skin, which reduces the chance of the tan being patchy and streaky, it is not necessarily the safest option.
DHA on the skin from a self-tanner is one thing, but as the formula is being sprayed on your body, you will end up inhaling some of it as well. There is no telling what excessive inhalation of DHA might do to your body, but you can choose to wear a protective mask to try and lessen this a bit.
Can you still tan while wearing a fake tan?
Fake tan does not protect your skin from sun damage at all. Some fake tanning products claim to have SPF protection, but like other sunscreens, this will fade within a few hours.
You can still tan and burn through a fake tan, so you should protect your skin by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen when going out into the sun.
Understanding how fake tanners work will allow you to decide if they are the right product for you, and how you can further protect your skin when using one.
Fake tanning products are such a great alternative to sitting out in the sun and damaging your skin, and most fake tanning products can be used at home. However, just because they are safer than sun tanning, it does not mean that they are completely safe.
The active ingredient in fake tanners, DHA, can cause some damage to the skin, so being wary of the chemical reaction, and knowing the ways to protect your skin from any damage, can help you make the most of fake tan products, while still ensuring your skin is kept healthy.