The deleterious effects of self-tanning products — streaky brown or Oompa-Loompa orange skin — have faded considerably over the past couple years, due in large part to advances in formulations and delivery methods that make a DIY tan easier to acquire. These advances, coupled with a stronger awareness of sun damage and the potential harmful effects of UV lights in tanning beds, have inspired more of us to slather on the bronze, rather than run the risk of skin cancer or premature aging.
U.S. sales of self-tanning products increased 13% in 2010, compared with 2009 ($22.9 million versus $25.8 million). Which may lead you to ask: How do these creams, lotions, foams and sprays work?
The active ingredient in the formulas that are misted onto the skin in a sunless tanning salon as well as the self-tanning products you’ll find at drugstores and department stores is called dihydroxyacetone (or DHA) which is often derived from sugar cane or beets. “The DHA binds with proteins in the stratum corneum (top layer of the skin) and undergoes a series of chemical reactions similar to what happens when you brown bread,” says Randy Wickett, a professor of pharmaceutics and cosmetic science at the University of Cincinnati. He adds that DHA doesn’t react with the deeper, more viable part of the skin; it reacts with only the most superficial layer, which is constantly exfoliating itself — and that’s why a sunless tan generally lasts from two to 10 days.
“The color created by the DHA reaction is more yellow and less red than natural skin color,” Wickett says. “And unless you put something else in there, DHA will leave the skin orange.” Which is why many of the original self-tanners sold in the 1960s and ‘70s were notorious for turning the user’s skin an ochreous hue, rather than a healthy bronze. Over the past several years, the addition of another sugar compound called erythrulose has tempered the orange and produced a more natural-looking color.
DHA is approved by the FDA for cosmetic use and Wickett adds that he hasn’t seen any indications that the ingredient is unsafe.
Dr. Heather Roberts, an L.A.-based dermatologist, says that people should do two patch tests on an arm before applying a self-tanner to the entire body. “The reaction is similar to poison oak,” she says. “You may not see it in the first application. Apply it once and wait 48 to 72 hours to ensure there’s no breakout or adverse reaction. Perform the test again a week later for a better safety margin.” And since some self tanning formulas include ingredients such as beet juice, caramel and chocolate to amp up the color in the skin dying process, potential tanners with food allergies should be sure to check product labels.
Roberts also reminds self-tanners that a golden color is not an indication that skin is less sensitive to the sun. “Self-tanners do not protect you from sun damage,” she says. “People must use SPF after the sunless tanning product is applied.”
Exfoliating is the most important step to keep the results of self-tanner looking even. Sloughing off the oldest skin cells and exposing the freshest layer of stratum corneum gives the tan a chance to last longer as well clear the skin of rough and flaky spots.
As formulations of self-tanners have evolved so has the product packaging. In some cases the word “tan” has been replaced with terms such as “skin finishing” and “glow products” in order to emphasize healthy, natural-looking skin. Jergens has an extensive line of “glow lotions” that supposedly enhance the skin’s natural color and add a healthy tone.
St. Tropez, a self-tanning brand that refers to the process as skin finishing, has a large array of products ranging from bronzing mousse, body polishers, bronzing face powders and wash off tanners.
Fiona Locke, a skin finishing expert for the brand who tans and tones the contestants on “Dancing With the Stars,” not only works to give a client’s skin a deeper color, she contours and shades their arms, legs and cheekbones to enhance muscle tone and bone structure. “It’s all about finding the shadows,” she says “Find the shadow of the muscle by flexing, look in the mirror, then take a cotton ball with a dab of self-tanner and fill in those areas.” For anyone who is squeamish about shading in their muscles or applying any color changing product to their entire body, there is also a growing market of wash off self-tanning products that disappear with water.
For the semi-permanent effect, we tried a few of the newer products and, thankfully, emerged free of any Snooki-esque color, though in some cases, the process is still a two-person operation.
Rodial Brazilian Tan
$49 for 6.8 fluid ounces
Our tester, who has a light to medium complexion, applied the spray with the help of her sister, because as she put it, “You just can’t get all the areas by yourself; you definitely need a friend’s help.”
But she did like the color (“It looked like a real tan”), smell (a faint and sweet caramel scent), and consistency (a light mist that was neither sticky or greasy) of the spray and said it dried within 30 minutes without staining her clothing.
The result was a streak-free tan that left the tester’s skin feeling smooth and even in color.
She does suggest that this product needs to be applied in an outdoor, well-ventilated area because the spray — which has 360 degree airbrush technology — does tend to get on surrounding furniture and linger in the air a bit.
Josie Maran Argan self tanning cream
$32 for 4 fluid ounces
For anyone who has skin allergies or just prefers natural cosmetics, this product is free of parabens and infused with organic Argan oil, which is said to be hydrating and to protect the skin against pollutants and environmental toxins. Our tester said the product delivered a natural looking finish to her skin and turned her usually pale legs to a warm honey-brown color that came on gradually after she applied the cream three times over three days.
“It goes on just like my daily lotion and didn’t turn my hands brown at all,” our tester said of the white cream that “doesn’t smell good or bad, it just smells like nothing.”
One drawback to this gradual and natural self-tanner — the small (4-ounce) tube doesn’t last long if you’re planning to tan your entire body. Our tester used about half the bottle during her three applications in order to build up to her desired shade.
St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse
$30 for 4 fluid ounces
This aloe-infused, brown foam goes on easily and soaks right into the skin before it has a chance to streak or stain. Our tester said the lightly perfumed scent isn’t cloying, but after putting it all over her body, the smell did start to become stronger.
Color-wise, this product seems to be for someone who is going for brown, a look-at-me-I just-came-back-from-the-Bahamas-brown. Our tester’s medium skin tone took to this product immediately and turned about two shades darker with just one application.
Clarins Instant Smooth Self Tanning
$32.50 for 1 fluid ounce
In the one-ounce jar, Clarins self-tanner has the color and consistency of processed peanut butter, but our tester (the only male in the group) said it spread easily over his skin and body hair. Our tester noted that the instructions on the packaging made clear (in several places) that it does not contain a sunscreen and therefore it should be applied only after a daily skin-care regimen that includes one.
It’s considered a “progressive” self-tanner, meaning that it should be applied daily until the desired shade is achieved. The first daily application was barely noticeable compared with the non-bronzed forearm; the second daily dose started to show a darker shade; and a decidedly bronze glow was present after the third application — by which time nearly a third of the one-ounce jar was gone.
The color did transfer slightly to a long-sleeve shirt, and since the product is intended for the face and neckline area, our tester suggests not wearing an expensive or favorite garment until you’re sure the color can be laundered out.