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Sunless tanning

Contrary to popular belief, sunless tanning doesn't alter the pigmentation of your skin. Sunless tanning uses chemicals that darken only dead skin cells.

By Zeel Editorial Staff, Last updated: May 18, 2020

Tanning can give the skin an attractive golden glow. But UVA and UVB rays from the sun can also wrinkle your skin (through breaking down elastin and collagen) and increase the likelihood of developing melanomas and other skin cancers.

The solution, for many, is sunless tanning. A sunless tan can be achieved in one of many ways and most commonly involves the application of reactive chemicals (DHA and/or erythrulos—more on them later) to the skin to give it the appearance of a suntan without actually spending time in the sun.

It's possible to temporarily color the face without chemicals - through the use of cosmetic bronzers, which are tinted powders or creams - but if you're looking for an overall glow that won't wash off right away, sunless tanning is the way to go. Keep in mind that sunless tanning does not provide any protection from the sun - it's not a "base tan."

Sunless tanners come in two main forms: lotions and spray tans. You can apply these lotions and sprays yourself, or you can have someone (or something) else do it for you.

How sunless tanning works

Contrary to popular belief, sunless tanning doesn't alter the pigmentation of your skin.

All self-tanners have the chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in them. DHA is a natural substance derived from the sugars of fruits and vegetables (like beets, for example), which is why skin feels sticky following a spray tan.

DHA reacts with the amino acids in your skin cells, producing a chemical response that darkens only dead skin cells. A higher concentration of DHA results in a darker tan. Multiple layers of a self-tanner with a low concentration of DHA can also result in a deeper tan. Your tan fades gradually as these cells naturally slough off. (You gain a new top layer of skin every 30 to 40 days through the natural shedding of dead skin cells.)

Many sunless tanners also contain the chemical erythrulos—just one to three percent concentration is enough to dye dead skin cells too. Erythrulos is made from the sugar of raspberries.

Both erythrulos and DHA brown your skin, much like apple flesh turns brown when exposed to air. This main difference between these two ingredients is that erythrulos continues to darken over a 24 to 48 hours period. This extends the life of your tan. Erythrulos also helps your skin retain moisture so cells stay put longer and your skin stays tanner.

Types of Sunless Tanning

Home sunless tanning

Home self tanners take many forms - creams, gels, lotions, foamy mousses, wipes, and aerosol sprays. These self tanners are normally inexpensive. The main drawback lies in the difficulty of getting an even overall fake tan using these products alone, especially if applying to the entire body.

Some parts of the body, like the back, are difficult to reach, while others tend to absorb more chemical tanner than others. DHA is readily absorbed into thicker skin, like your hands, elbows, and feet (because the palms of hands and feet tend to have more dead skin cells). That's why your palms tend to turn especially orange after using creamy self-tanners. Wash your hands right after applying a self-tanner, or wear gloves, to avoid orange palms. Additionally, the tanner has a tendency to stain.

Professional sunless tanning

Professional sunless tanning is more expensive, but is much more likely to go on evenly and look natural. Spray tans can be completed in two ways - either in an automatic spray tan booth or with the help of a spray tan technician, who manually guides a handheld airbrush device over your skin.

Professional spray tanning can darken your skin one to five shades and, if done properly, without orange-ness. A professional spray tan can look natural and last seven to 10 days before fading.

Did you know?: Your skin's pH levels also affect the uniformity and natural look of a sunless tan. In science, pH stands for potential of hydrogen - it's a scale ranging from 0 to 14 that measures the acidity and alkalinity of a substance. But what does this mean for your skin?

Your skin has a natural pH level of about five-this is slightly acidic, which is mostly caused by your skin's natural oils. Many everyday soaps are neutral or alkaline (a pH of seven or above), which makes your skin less acidic. (This is why many soaps can leave your skin dry and scaly.) Using a self-tanner right after you shower or bathe, when your skin is still off-balance, can result in an orangey tan. To avoid this effect, look for slightly acidic body washes. You may also benefit from a pre-spray tan lotion that can balance your skin's pH first.

Who's Done It?

Olivia Wilde, Katherine McPhee, and the entire Dancing with the Stars cast gets their tans from Fiona Locke, celebrity spray tanner and rep for St. Tropez. Lindsay Lohan has her own line of sunless tanning products called sevin nyne. And Victoria’s Secret models Alessandra Ambrosio, Marisa Miller, and Miranda Kerr are also confirmed sunless tanners.