How Does Self Tanner Work: Your Guide To A Safe Tan

How Does Self Tanner Work

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Have you ever found yourself curious as to how does self tanner work its magic without subjecting your skin to sun-damaging UV rays? 

Well, it all boils down to some clever science and naturally occurring sugar!

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), one of the key ingredients found in self-tanners, can be obtained either through sugar cane plants or fermented glycerin fermentation processes. 

When applied directly onto your skin’s top layer, DHA reacts with amino acids producing a pigment called melanoidin which develops into color over two to four hours after application.

This process is known as the Maillard Reaction. It’s similar to toasting bread or searing meat, except it’s used to give you a golden glow without UV damage.

How Does Self Tanner Work

How Does Self Tanner Work: Understanding The Science

So, how does self tanner work? There’s a simple yet intriguing scientific process behind self-tanners. Let’s break it down.

First and foremost, let’s get familiar with the amino acid tyrosine found within your skin cells. Tyrosine plays a crucial part in producing melanin pigment, which gives color to skin, hair, and eyes.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)1, the active ingredient found in most self-tanners, isn’t just some magic bronzer. 

It’s actually a colorless sugar produced from sugar cane or by fermenting glycerin fermentation processes. 

When applied topically on your skin’s surface, DHA reacts with dead cells and tyrosine molecules to temporarily darken skin tone — better known as the Maillard reaction.

TyrosineAmino acid aiding melanin production
DHAActive ingredient causing temporary darkening

This reaction typically begins two to four hours post-application and usually peaks 24 to 48 hours later, lasting seven days as darker dead skin cells naturally flake off and are replaced by new cells. 

To maximize results from self-tanner applications, you will want to: 

  • Exfoliate prior to applying 
  • Apply evenly 
  • Allow enough drying time

Follow these steps for even product distribution and natural-looking results.

Please remember, don’t confuse self-tanning with adequate sun damage protection! Even though your skin might appear darker after application, that doesn’t guarantee protection from UV rays.

Do Self-Tanners Protect Your Skin From Sun Damage?

The short answer: no. Self-tanners don’t offer much protection from the sun. The SPF is only 3 to 4, covering only a small part of the visible spectrum and not protecting well against ultraviolet A.

Plus, the protection only lasts for a few hours after you apply the sunscreen, so it won’t stay with you for the duration of your tan.

In fact, it’s recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology2 that every single person who spends any time outside wears sunscreen that is a broad spectrum, SPF 30 or higher, and is water resistant.  

The Process: How Self-Tanners Interact With Your Skin

Simply stated, dihydroxyacetone (DHA) reacts with amino acids present in dead skin cells to produce darkening over time. 

This sugar compound reacts positively with any existing dead cells on your skin’s surface to produce this desired darkening effect.

But let’s delve deeper. DHA penetrates only the top layers of skin – specifically the stratum corneum or “horny layer.” 

Since DHA molecules are too large to pass deeper through into the epidermis (skin), they won’t harm living cells.

The reaction to this process is the Maillard Reaction. When DHA comes in contact with these skin proteins, pigments, known as melanoidins, form, which range in color from yellow to brownish-red – giving your complexion that much-desired bronze glow.

But why does this tan fade after multiple days? Your body naturally sheds dead skin cells each day while producing new ones. 

Over time, those tanned cells gradually shed off and are replaced by fresh ones— eventually leading to your tan’s gradual fade.

Here’s an easy breakdown:

1Application of self-tanner
2DHA penetrates top layer of skin (stratum corneum)
3Interaction between DHA & amino acids produces melanoidins
4Melanoidins give skin a bronze tint
5Natural cell turnover leads to gradual fading

Keep in mind that everyone’s cell turnover varies depending on age and other factors such as dryness or oiliness, so results can differ from person to person.

How Does Self Tanner Work

Conclusion: The Magic Behind Your Sunless Tan

Let’s wrap this journey up by demystifying the science behind your soon-to-be sunless glow.

DHA is at the core of self-tanning products. When applied, DHA reacts with the amino acids found in the dead skin cells on your skin’s surface to form brown-colored compounds known as Melanoidins, which provide you with that sought-after bronzed look without exposure to UV rays.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)Reacts with amino acids to create melanoidins

Be mindful that not all self-tanners are created equal – there are lotions, mousses, and sprays designed for specific tanning needs and preferences. 

  • Lotions provide intensive hydration alongside a gradual tan
  • Mousses offer faster-drying formulas tailored for experienced users
  • Sprays offer quick, full coverage without the hassle.

And remember these golden rules of self-tanning

  1. Always exfoliate before applying self-tanner in order to achieve even color distribution. 
  2. Moisturize dry areas like elbows and knees, as this prevents patchiness in application.
  3. Wash hands thoroughly to prevent orange palms, or use a tanning mitt! 

In essence, beauty alchemy is just simple chemistry at work on your skin. When done safely and appropriately, it gives you complete control over its own sun-kissed glow.

Now step out in style and flaunt that beautiful bronze tan!

  1. Draelos ZD. Self-tanning lotions: are they a healthy way to achieve a tan? Am J Clin Dermatol. 2002;3(5):317-8. doi: 10.2165/00128071-200203050-00003. PMID: 12069637. ↩︎
  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. ↩︎

Frequently Asked Questions

Although self tanners make you look like you’ve been in the sun already, it’s not protecting your skin against UV damage.

It’s super important to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays. So even with self tanner on, don’t leave the house without applying sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.

Be sure to take proper precautions when you’re out and about in the sun to keep your skin safe and healthy.

There aren’t many studies done on the cons of self-tanner, however, one study found that DHA-treated skin generates more than 180% additional radicals during sun exposure.  

So to sum it up, DHA (the active ingredient in self tanners) can trigger free radicals and accelerate sun damage.  

The active ingredient in most self-tanners is called DHA (dihydroxyacetone). It reacts with amino acids in your skin to give you that natural-looking brown color.

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