Everything You Need To Know About Sunless Tanning

Summer’s soon going to be at our doorstep in all it’s sunny glory. Which means you’re going to be eyeing that much-coveted sun-kissed glow, without necessarily exposing yourself to too many long hours under the sun. Which is just as well, because you don’t want to accidentally end up developing some sort of skin cancer!

Consider upgrading your tanning routine with the help of sunless tanning products. They promise you that lovely poolside glow sans the painful sunburns or the damaging impact of those super harsh ultraviolet rays. Here’s what you need to know about these summertime miracles.


What Are Sunless Tanning Products?

Sunless tanning products are available in the form of lotions, pills, and sprays, that give you a temporary tan.

With the American Academy of Dermatology estimating that one in five Americans will most likely develop skin cancer at some point in their life, more and more people are turning to sunless tanning (also known as self-tanning) products. 1


These products come in different forms such as lotions, gels, sprays, creams, pills, and bronzers. Depending on which type you choose, you can smooth, swipe, or spray on a tan whose color can range from a light bronze to a darker golden-brown hue. Most of these start taking effect within 45 minutes to an hour once you factor in the drying time and you could be looking at enjoying a completely natural-looking sunless tan for a good couple of days.

How Do Sunless Tanning Products Work?

Sunless tanning products contain DHA, a sugar that temporarily darkens the color of dead skin cells.


Dermatologists claim that the most effective sunless tanning products are the ones that contain the color additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the main active ingredient.

DHA is a colorless sugar that reacts with the dead cells on the surface of the skin. Upon interaction, DHA causes the color of these cells to darken which results in a tan. However, this tan is only temporary. This is because each day, your skin sheds millions of dead skin cells, giving you an entirely new epidermis every 35 to 45 days. So as these dead skin cells wear away, so will your tan.


The color change typically lasts about five to seven days from the time of application. This is why so many of these sunless tanning products instruct frequent reapplications every three days to maintain that tan.

Sunless Tanning Accelerators

Tanning accelerators are typically lotions or pills that contain an amino acid called tyrosine. These products basically claim to work like the sun does, that is stimulating and boosting the formation of melanin, thereby accelerating the tanning process (more melanin equals more tanning). However, there is no research to confirm these claims at the moment.



Bronzers, available in the form of powders and moisturizers are another popularly used form of sunless tanning. Once applied, they can easily be washed away with soap and water. Therefore, this is not the best form of sunless tanning to opt for if you’re going to be swimming.

Sunless Tanning Pills

Tanning pills are another sunless-tanning product. These contain canthaxanthin, a commonly used color additive in certain foods. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the use of canthaxanthin in food, it doesn’t completely agree with its use as a tanning agent.


This is because when used as a color additive in foods, only small amounts of canthaxanthin are required which are safe for consumption. However, tanning products call for larger quantities of this color additive. If accidentally consumed, it can end up being deposited all over your body, including in the layers of your skin, eventually causing it to turn orange-brown in color. In fact, tanning pills are linked to a variety of side effects such as hives, hepatitis and canthaxanthin retinopathy – a condition where yellow deposits form in the retina of the eye.2

Do Sunless Tanning Products Offer Sun Protection?

Sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen and hence do not offer sun protection.


No, they don’t.

Most sunless tanning products don’t contain sunscreen because if they did, they would only be effective for a couple of hours. Therefore, if you’ve applied a sunless tanning product and are planning to spend a considerable amount of time in the sun, you will definitely need to apply a sunscreen as well.

Are Sunless Tanning Products Safe?

Sunless tanning products are safe as long as they don't come in contact with our internal mucous membranes.

According to the FDA, sunless tanning products that contain DHA are safe to use as long as they are limited to “external application” only. The Code of Federal Regulations defines “externally applied” cosmetics as those that are “applied only to external parts of the body and not to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane.”3

Because the internal risks of DHA are unknown, experts warn people using sunless tanning products against inhaling or applying DHA to areas that are covered by mucous membranes such as the areas around the eyes, the nose, or the lips.

This is also why the use of DHA in “spray-tan” booths is not FDA-approved because the process of “misting” increases the risks of DHA-exposure to the internal mucous membranes.

Precautions To Take While Self-Tanning

Be careful to always protect your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth when opting for a self-tan.

If you’re opting for a self-tan at home with the help of DHA-contained products, read and follow the instructions carefully. Be extra careful to not get the product in your eyes, nose, or mouth.

If you’re going to a spray-tan booth, ask the staff about how your eyes, lips, nose, and ears will be protected from the process of “misting” and whether you will be protected from inhaling the tanning spray. Many booths should give you goggles, nose plugs or nose filters, and lip balm to protect yourself before you step into the booth.

Helpful Tips When Applying A Self-Tanning Product

Start with your ankles when applying your sunless tanning product and work your way upwards.


Keep these tips in mind to score yourself a faux sunny glow and fend off those haphazard ugly orange patches.

  • Get all other beauty treatments done beforehand: Be it waxing, or manicures, or shaving, finish everything first and then apply your self-tanning product, otherwise, these may end up removing your tan.
  • Exfoliate: Self-tanners can sink into dry, flaky skin to leave weird dark patches. This is why you want to exfoliate yourself first to slough off those external dead cells and get your skin nice and smooth.
  • Dry yourself thoroughly: This one seems obvious but is an important step to keep in mind. Never apply your tanning product until you’re 100 percent dry.
  • Moisturize: Dab on dots of a lightweight lotion on the dry areas of your skin such as your nostrils, elbows, knees, and ankles to stop them from turning dark or an unsightly orange hue.
  • Pick your potion: A general rule of thumb is to go for a self-tanner that suits your skin tone, not your desired result. If you have a fair skin tone, go with a light to medium formula. Olive tones may opt for a darker formula.
  • Start from the bottom, work your way up: This will prevent weird marks and patches that may form on your skin as you bend over. Start from your ankles and work your way up to your shoulders, saving your arms and hands for last.
  • Let your tan dry: If the directions ask you to wait for 5 minutes, wait for 10 minutes. Be patient and give your tan ample time to dry off.
  • Apply some baby powder all over: This will prevent the tan from rubbing off onto your clothes.
  • Preserve your tan: There isn’t any guarantee as to how long your tan may last, but you can still take certain measures to preserve it for longer. Wash yourself with gentle cleansers and moisturize yourself well. Avoid acne treatments or cosmetics with retinol as these can dissolve the color of your tan.
  • Stay safe in the sun: As mentioned earlier, your sunless tanning product will not protect you from those skin-damaging ultraviolet rays. Therefore, remember to always wear a sunscreen before you head out without fail.