Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to email@example.com.
Reader's Questions: I've heard that self-tanners protect you from the sun. Is this true? Can the color cover up wrinkles and age spots?
Sue's Response: Years ago, when I was still young and foolish, I looked down my nose at self-tanners and wondered why anyone would choose a "fake bake." Years later, I had the opportunity to act as a guinea pig for a self-tanner survey. For five hours, I sat in my apartment coloring each limb, my face and my torso with a different product. By the end of the experiment, I had seen the light.
Although sometimes awkward (try reaching the middle of your back to apply self-tanner evenly), the results were far more pleasant that I had expected. While the colors differed slightly, they all left me with a perfectly acceptable tanned appearance that looked...well...normal. Since then, I have followed my dermatologist's advice and refused to use the sun to get a tan.
The main reason people still believe that self-tanners will turn you orange is its bad reputation from history and overzealous celebrities. The primary ingredient of most self-tanners is a carbohydrate called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. During the 1920s, German scientists using DHA in the X-ray process discovered an unusual side effect: Skin that came into contact with DHA turned brown a few hours after exposure.
Later research demonstrated that DHA was not only non-toxic, but affected only the outermost, dead layer of skin cells. DHA reacts with the protein in dead skin cells to produce a temporary darkening effect. Coppertone originally introduced a line of self-tanners in the 1960s, but the results were unpopular due to streaks and that obvious orange tint. Since then, however, the formulas have been refined and now produce the only tanning option recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.
DHA is now used in tanning products along with erythrulose, another carbohydrate that produces similar effects in the skin. The chemical reaction that produces darkening of the skin takes anywhere from one hour to four hours to appear.
Contrary to popular myth, a sunless tan will not protect you from the sun. Self-tanners usually do not contain any SPF and those that do are mostly ineffective since many formulas require you to wash them off or wait overnight for color to develop. When using self-tanner, remember to stay faithful to sunscreen before walking out into the sun.
A sunless tan will also not entirely cover up wrinkles, freckles or age spots. However, it can help your skin's appearance in other ways. Freckles and age spots may darken slightly, but this can be avoided by using products designed to "build" color every day. Neutrogena's Build-a-Tan and Jergens' Natural Glow Daily moisturizer both provide a tiny amount of DHA in order to achieve the color you desire in a controlled, gradual manner.
In addition, some women choose to use a sunless tan in place of makeup. Since foundation often settles into fine lines and wrinkles, the color provided by a sunless tanner can draw attention away from these areas.
For those with rosacea, self-tanners have the added benefit of providing a tan without exposing skin to the sun, which is known to cause flare-ups. However, DHA and erythrulose can cause mild irritation for people with sensitive skin, so test a small patch of skin before applying the product all over.
People with drier skin will benefit from a standard cream formula such as St. Tropez or Coppertone. I personally prefer foam or gel formulas, which dry more quickly and glide more smoothly onto the skin. Two options include L'oreal Sublime Gel and Neutrogena Sunless Tanning Foam. If you're a first-time sunless tanner, always opt for the lightest formula first in order to gauge the results. Follow the directions listed on the product and exfoliate well prior to application in order to avoid streaks and avoid applying too much of the product to tougher areas like your knees, ankles and elbows.