Anybody who knows me knows all about my inability to tan like a normal human. I start as a lovely, reflective neon white and occasionally reach the deep, dark tones of “somewhat less reflectively white.” Typically, I just bounce between sunburn and the lightest foundation shade available. We all have our struggles, I suppose.
In my younger days, I really wanted to be tan like all of my friends. They looked so glowy and pretty, and I wished that I could be a nice shade of bronze too. Being pale doesn’t bother me anymore, so I rarely think about anything other than sunscreen, but I used to dive deeply into the world of sunless tanning and tanning beds because I was told they were better. (All I can say now is, “Yikes, Past Nicole. Why did nobody tell you how ridiculous you looked?”)
Sunless tanning is always touted as a safe alternative to baking in the sun or bronzing in a tanning bed. However, I’ve also seen articles floating around on social media that sunless tanners are just as dangerous as UV exposure. Naturally, this piqued my curiosity!
So, let’s talk about sunless tanning.
Sunless tanning is touted as a safe alternative to baking in the sun or bronzing in a tanning bed. However, sunless tanners may be just as dangerous as UV exposure.
First Things First: How Do Sunless Tanners Work?
There’s a reason that every variety of sunless tanner explicitly tells you to exfoliate before you begin, and that reason is DHA.
The active ingredient in most of these products is a plant-derived sugar called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. This sugar molecule reacts with the amino acids in the top layer of skin cells to generate pigment with brown (or sometimes orangey) tones. Areas of your body that don’t get exfoliated well enough tend to look darker because there’s a higher concentration of skin cells for the DHA to react with, resulting in those unfortunate dark patches.
Because DHA only reacts with the uppermost layer of your skin, as those skin cells slough away naturally, your tan is sloughed away with them.
The chemical reaction happening between DHA and your skin is also the cause of the dreaded “self-tanner scent.” Since they can’t prevent the smell, most brands just try to mask it with more pleasant fragrances.
Are Topical Sunless Tanners Safe?
While it’s true that DHA-based sunless tanners are the most reliable and effective, they’re also not great for your skin. According to this review from The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, long-term or frequent use of DHA-based sunless tanning products can increase the risk of free radical damage and limit your body’s vitamin D production.
You might also see articles discussing DHA causing cell death or DNA damage, but these studies were not done on human cells (they were done on mouse cells in a culture dish). It’s good information to have, but it’s important to understand the context.
Long-term or frequent use of DHA-based sunless tanning products can increase the risk of free radical damage and limit your body’s vitamin D production.
If you’re a special occasion-only user of sunless tanners, then you likely don’t need to worry too much. If you’re applying these products daily, though, you might want to rethink your approach to tanning!
What About Tanning Pills?
In a word: NO. These pills are advertised as a safe way to get a natural, sunless tan, but the reality is that they’re just a good way to endanger your health and look like an Oompa Loompa.
The active ingredient in tanning pills is called canthaxanthin (can-tha-zan-thin), an FDA-approved substance for adding color to foods. It’s a natural substance found in mushrooms and algae, but this is an instance where natural doesn’t mean safe.
Tiny amounts of canthaxanthin are acceptable, which is why the FDA-approved limit is very low. Tanning pills far exceed that amount, and this causes canthaxanthin to build up in your epidermis and fat stores. It’s how you get that orangey-brown fake tan from a pill, but it’s also how you get a laundry list of potentially fatal side effects. And orange skin.
The FDA has banned all tanning pills containing canthaxanthin, and it discourages consumers from using tanning pills containing beta-carotene and tyrosine. Consuming large amounts of synthetic beta-carotene can also potentially be dangerous, and tyrosine pills have no reliable data to support them, so the FDA considers them to be potentially dangerous too.
So How DO I Safely Tan?
You might be thinking that products like Deciem’s Glow Oil and Glow Radiance Booster are perfect because they’re DHA-free. I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but this isn’t the case.
DHA-free sunless tanners typically use a substance called erythrulose, a sugar that’s very similar to DHA. It reacts with skin cells in basically the same manner, except the results are slower, and the tan has more of a reddish hue. So, it’s essentially the same thing packaged differently.
The best way to get a safe sunless tan is to opt for wash-off bronzing products. Brands like Vita Liberata, St. Tropez, Tarte, and Marc Jacobs make temporary bronzing products that are easy to apply. Once they’re set, they’re waterproof and transfer-resistant for up to 24 hours so that you can be safely sun-kissed for any occasion!
The best way to get a safe sunless tan is to opt for wash-off bronzing products. Once they’re set, they’re waterproof and transfer-resistant for up to 24 hours!
If you still want to apply sunless tanner, then health experts recommend that you take some precautionary steps to minimize the potential risks.
– Apply at night. The potential for free radical damage drops about four hours after application, and since UV rays increase the risk of cell damage, applying at night ensures that you’re as safe as possible.
– Skip some days. If you apply every day or every other day, try reducing your application frequency to just a couple of times a week. You can supplement the off days with a body bronzer.
– Wear plenty of sunscreen. Tanning lotions offer little to no sun protection, so it’s crucial to apply frequently!
– Add more antioxidants to your routine. Topical antioxidants are a good idea regardless of whether you self-tan or not, but they can help to limit the amount of free radical damage your skin experiences.
Let’s Talk About Tanning!
Do you use sunless tanning products or body bronzers? Did you grow up believing that tanning beds were safer than the sun? (I did!) Tell me about your experiences in the comments!