So many people come into my office saying that they want get look tan without getting wrinkles or, worse, skin cancer. They’re hoping to hear that it is safe for the skin to maintain a tan. Unfortunately, I can’t tell them what they want to hear. When the risks of sun exposure are explained, there is usually some disappointment but many people return back to their usual habits of using tanning beds or getting too much natural sun. So how does one maintain a tan without absorbing the harmful ultraviolet light? The answer lies in sunless tanners.
The main active ingredient in sunless tanners is dihydroxyacetone, or more commonly known as DHA. DHA reacts with the outer layer of skin cells, causing a temporary darkening of the skin very similar to the appearance of a tan. This effect lasts about one week and then fades as the outer layers of skin are shed. All research suggests that DHA applied to outer layers of skin is safe and without any short or long term side effects. Some products also contain erythrulose, which is similar to DHA and also produces a short lived tan that fades over the course of several days. Products containing both ingredients tend to give a more natural-looking, longer lasting tan that fades more evenly.
Products available over the counter in sunless tanners come as creams or gels or foams. They are usually applied daily and the gradual tan appears over several days and will fade as quickly if application is discontinued. Several different lines are available, and different creams may lead to different shaded tans.
Another popular method of sunless tanning is to get a spray-on tan that usually is done at a commercial salon. These tanning “showers” usually contain DHA as the main ingredient so many people return for weekly visits as each tan will last approximately one week.
The main complaint heard about these sunless tanners is uneven tanning that does not look natural. This is especially true for the person who gets his/her first spray on tan. It usually takes several sessions to get the technique and position optimized so as to minimize streaking or any uneven appearance. The creams applied at home must also be applied evenly to allow for a smooth appearing tan that appears natural. Over time, people tend to achieve a better sunless tan as they learn which areas of skin need more or less product. Many of the products also come with tips and guidelines to help the user achieve a more even and natural appearing tan. If you opt for weekly spray tans, this can get expensive although you can usually get package deals which will make it cheaper.
These sunless tanning products do not protect you from sun damage as they do not have a sunscreen incorporated into them so remember to wear sunscreen to maintain your tan and prevent sun damage. While not perfect, these products are a good alternative to tanning beds or outdoor suntanning to keep the bronzed look. I expect that new products that will be developed will allow for an increasingly natural look so they will become even more user friendly. As of now, there are no safe pills to take to give a tan appearance so stick with the sunless tanners and sunscreen to maintain healthy skin.
Kevin Berman is a dermatologist in Roswell, Georgia and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including North Fulton Regional Hospital and Northside Hospital. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Skin Cancer.