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Sunless tanning: what you need to know

Do you want to show off an attractive tan without exposing your skin to the harmful rays of the sun? Consider using sunless tanning products. Understand how these products work and how important it is to use them well and carefully.

How do sunless tanning products work?

Sunless tanning products, also called self-tanners, can give your skin a tanned look without exposing it to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Sunless tanning products are commonly sold as lotions, creams, and sprays that are applied to the skin. Professional spray tanning is also available.

The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is the color additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied, dihydroxyacetone reacts with dead cells in the surface layer of the skin to temporarily darken it and simulate a tan. Usually the color disappears after a few days.

Will sunless tanning products protect you from sunburn?

Most sunless tanning products do not contain sunscreen. If a product contains sunscreen, it will only be effective for a couple of hours. If you spend time outside, sunscreen is still essential.

What about sunless tanning pills?

Sunless tanning lozenges, which typically contain canthaxanthin, a color additive, are not safe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn the skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage, and impaired vision.

Is sunless tanning safe?

Topical sunless tanning products are generally considered safe alternatives to sunbathing, as long as they are used as directed.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved dihydroxyacetone for external application to the skin. However, the FDA states that dihydroxyacetone should not be inhaled or applied to areas covered by mucous membranes, including the lips, nose, or areas around the eyes because the risks of doing so are unknown.

If you are using a sunless tanning product at home, follow the directions on the label and do not get the product in your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you go to a tanning booth without the sun, ask how they will protect your eyes, mouth, nose, and ears, and how they will prevent you from inhaling the tanning spray.

What is the best way to apply a sunless tanning lotion?

For best results, follow the directions on the package. In general:

  • Exfoliate before anything else. Use a washcloth or exfoliating product to remove excess dead skin cells. Spend a little more time on areas with thicker skin, such as the knees, elbows, and ankles. Pat your skin dry.
  • Apply by sections. Massage the product onto the skin in circular motions. Apply the bronzer to your body in sections, such as your arms, legs, and torso. Wash your hands with soap after each section to avoid discoloration on the palms of your hands. Lightly spread the product from ankles to feet and from wrists to hands.
  • Clean the joint areas. The knees, elbows, and ankles tend to absorb more of the sunless tanning product. To dilute the tanning effect in these areas, rub them gently with a damp towel or apply a little lotion over the self-tanner.
  • Let it dry. Wait at least 10 minutes before dressing. Wear loose clothing and try not to sweat.
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