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The Truth About Self-Tanner: This is How It Can Actually Age Your Skin (and What to Use Instead)

We all know the sun is our skin’s greatest enemy. 

So if you’re after a golden glow, the only safe way to get it is from a bottle of self-tanner.

Or is it?

There’s no question that a fake tan is preferable to lying out in the sun or on a tanning bed and risking skin damage and skin cancer.

But you might be surprised to discover how self-tanner does its job—and how it, too, can have aging effects!

In this tutorial, you will learn:

  • How self-tanners temporarily change your skin colour
  • What they’re really doing to your skin and body
  • How to make self-tanner less damaging
  • The best alternatives to self-tanner

How Does Self-Tanner Work?

First, let’s talk about the mechanism behind self-tanners (as well as spray tans) that creates the look of tanned skin.

The active ingredient in all tanning products is dihydroxyacetone. Also known as DHA, this is a simple carbohydrate that can be derived either chemically or from natural sources such as beets and cane sugar.

When you apply a product containing DHA, it reacts with the amino acids in the top layer of your skin. This generates pigments called melanoidins, which appear brown because they absorb certain wavelengths of light.

This process is known as the “Maillard reaction.” It starts within two to four hours after applying self-tanner, and continues for up to 72 hours. 

During this time, it will emit that distinctive self-tanner smell, because of the chemical reaction taking place. (ALL DHA products produce it; brands just add different fragrances to try to mask it.)

Your resulting tan can last up 10 days, but will start to fade within three to seven days as you naturally shed dead skin cells.

Is Self-Tanner Safe?

As you may have guessed, the problem with self-tanners is the DHA.

That Maillard reaction I mentioned, that takes place when you apply DHA to your skin? 

It’s the same thing that occurs when you caramelize sugar or grill meat. So even though you’re avoiding the sun, you’re STILL roasting your skin!

Here’s what happens:

  • Oxidative stress: The Maillard reaction from self-tanners generates free radicals, leading to oxidative stress. Free radicals are highly reactive chemical byproducts that attack cell structures and degrade collagen and elastin fibres. They can lead to premature aging, wrinkles and sagging skin!
  • Accelerated sun damage: The oxidative stress gets even worse if you go out in the sun after applying self-tanner, because UV makes DHA more unstable. This study found: “In DHA-treated skin, more than 180 percent additional radicals were generated during sun exposure with respect to untreated skin.”
  • DNA damage: DHA has also been linked to DNA damage. This study concluded: “The genotoxic capacity of DHA raises a question about the long-term clinical consequences of treatment of the skin with this commonly used compound.”
  • Vitamin D deficiency: Regular use of self-tanners may even reduce your vitamin D. This study found that the melanoidin pigments created by DHA can inhibit the body’s vitamin D production.
  • Irritation: Self-tanner can also lead to skin irritation and a weakened skin barrier. This study found that regular applications of DHA caused severe contact dermatitis and a damaged stratum corneum. Plus, most self-tanners contain fragrances to mask the DHA smell, and fragrance is the number one cause of skin sensitivities.

All of these concerns apply to spray tans, too. In fact, spray tans are even riskier than lotions. When DHA is inhaled or exposed to mucous membranes, it can cause serious harm to your respiratory system and can even promote certain cancers. Don’t get spray tans! 

DHA-Free Self-Tanner

So now you’re probably wondering about the new generation of “DHA-free” products. 

Maybe you’ve seen formulas like The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil or Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster, which are said to be gentler alternatives to self-tanner.

According to parent company DECIEM, both contain a “purified keto-sugar that reacts with skin amino acids to produce a golden tone within two to three days without the sensory drawbacks and potential negative effects associated with DHA.”

Sounds perfect, right?

Well, a closer look at their ingredients lists reveals that the active ingredient in DHA-free self-tanners is something called erythrulose. 

And what is erythrulose? Essentially the same thing as DHA!

This report explains: “Erythrulose is similar in composition to DHA. It is found naturally in red raspberries. Applied by itself, erythrulose takes longer to produce a tan, and the resulting tan fades quicker. The tan produced is also more red than brown in appearance. However, when combined with DHA, the tan reportedly lasts longer, fades better, and provides a more attractive tone. Erythrulose, however, has also been shown to increase production of free radicals similar to the effect seen with DHA.”

So, DHA-free formulas have the same side effects as DHA on your skin!

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