Self-tanning products have been touted as safe alternatives to sunbaking and tanning beds in order to achieve a sun-kissed glow. But how and why they work isn’t such common knowledge.
Most fake tan products contain the colour additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as their active ingredient, and it is this that temporarily darkens the skin. DHA reacts with the topmost layer of dead skin cells, hence why fake tans only last between approximately seven to ten days, as skin cells shed naturally.
DHA is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and most dermatologists regard self-tanning products as much safer than actual sun tanning. There have been some concerns in the past over toxicity from highly concentrated DHA, but self-tanning lotions, sprays and creams generally only contain DHA at levels between 3-5%. At these levels it is considered non-toxic and non-carcinogenic.
If used as directed – that is, topically – there is no indication of fake tans being harmful. There are some concerns about DHA that relate to the inhalation and ingestion of these products, and for this reason it is advised that you wear protective gear over the eyes, nose and mouth when applying them in aerosol form.
A more recent addition to the market – sunless tanning pills – contain the colour additive canthaxanthin and are generally considered unsafe. In high doses, canthaxanthin can cause hives or damage to the liver or vision. It’s advised to steer completely clear of these and stick to topical treatments.
Fake tan products do provide some sun protection, but should always be used in addition to broad-spectrum sunscreens of SPF 30 or more in order to completely protect yourself from harmful UV rays, especially during summer.
The best way to apply fake tanning products involve following the package directions to the letter. Remember to exfoliate first to remove the build-up of dead skin cells, and pay special attention to your knees, elbows and ankles. Apply the product in sections, and massage it into the skin in circular motions. To avoid a build-up of colour on your palms, wash your hands after each section. Wipe joint areas such as knees and elbows with a damp towel, as these areas tend to absorb more product. Finally, give your skin time to dry. Wait at least ten minutes before dressing, and wear loose clothing.