How do self-tanners work?

by Gio
self-tanners 101

If there’s one beauty product I couldn’t care less about is self-tanner. You see, I don’t tan. My skin’s pale and I love that. Pale skin is awesome. And healthy. And awesome.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how self-tanners work. What’s in them that turns your skin into that lovely Oompa-Loompa shade of orange sunkissed brown? Let’s find out:

How Do Self-Tanners Work?

It doesn’t matter how expensive or fancy your self-tanner is. 99% of self-tanners, be they drugstore or high-end, use the same ingredient: dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

DHA is a sugar derived from sugar cane. Although it is colourless, when you apply it on the skin, it reacts with the amino acids present in the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin), turning your skin a brownish hue.

The exception to the rule? Some innovative products, like Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster, are DHA-free. Instead, they use erythrulose.

It’s a carbohydrates extracted from red berries that reacts with the amino acids in your skin, turning it a golden brownish hue. It works more slowly than DHA, giving you a more subtle tan.

I personally prefer erythrulose. It’s less drying, doesn’t streak, and gives you a more natural tan. But I know lots of women are frustrated by how slowly it works. It’s your call to figure out if the trade-off is worth it.

P.S. Products with erythrulose are rare. If you pick something off a shelf, it’s more likely to have DHA.

Related: My Full Review Of Hylamide Glow Radiance Booster


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Why Do Some Self-Tanners Work Better Than Others?

I know what you’re thinking: “If 99% of self-tanners out there use the same active ingredient, then why some give you a natural tan while others make you look like an Oompa Loompa? Why do some streak like crazy while others apply like a dream? Something doesn’t add up here…”

This is a common mistake I see women make all the time: they focus too much on one ingredient, without taking into consideration how it’s used or how it interacts with the rest of the formula.

In the case of self-tanners, the result you get depends on the amount of DHA in the product. The higher the amount, the faster you’ll get a tan.

If your self-tanner has A LOT of DHA, your skin will get very dark after one application. Sounds cool, but it ain’t. This often looks very unnatural…

Is there only a sprinkle of DHA in the product? You’ll get a tan… after a few days. It’s a bit frustrating, but the result is a lot more natural.

The ideal spot is somewhere in between.

How Long Does The Tan Last?

A sunless tan doesn’t last long. It usually start to fade after 3 to 5 days. Why? Our skin naturally exfoliates itself. As DHA only darkens the outermost layer of the skin, the tan is shed together with those dead skin cells.

And, if you exfoliate in any way, either with an acid or a scrub, you’ll get rid of the tan more quickly. So, now you know why you have to reapply your self-tanner every 2 or 3 days.

P.S. Using erythrulose? Your tan will fade quicker… You need to use this type of self-tanners more often to keep up your tan.

Does A Self-Tanner Has Any Side Effects?

Yes. When it is exposed to the sun, DHA starts producing free radicals like crazy (180% more in the first 24 hours!).

Free radicals cause premature aging, so using a sunscreen with it is a MUST. I can’t stress this enough. If you use a self-tanner, apply sunscreen before leaving the house. And an antioxidant serum, too. Just in case. It’s better be safe than sorry, don’t you agree?

Do you use self-tanners? Share your experience in the comments below.

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4 comments

Dao October 20, 2009 - 9:21 pm

I used self tanner once and while it was fun, I did not enjoy it. Having to apply the creme over and over again is quite a nuisance to me.
.-= Dao´s last blog ..How to Revive Your Mascara =-.

Anastacia October 21, 2009 - 1:03 am

I really want to buy that Natural Glow stuffffff…
.-= Anastacia´s last blog ..Nails Of The Day : Double Random Dots =-.

PD October 21, 2009 - 3:23 pm

Out of all the self tanners you have tried, what one do you find the most effective? I’ve had mostly poor experiences with the stuff, but maybe its because i’m using the wrong brands!

beautifulwithbrains October 21, 2009 - 5:49 pm

Dao: I’m with you on that one. Having to reapply so often is a pain. I’d rather stay pale instead. 🙂

Anastacia: it looks nice 🙂

PD: to be honest, I very rarely use self-tanners as I love my pale skin and don’t like the tanned look so much. But my sister and friends use them and they like Hawaiian Tropic’s Island Glow Daily Moisturizer and Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer. They look quite natural. I heard L’oreal Sublime Bronze ProPerfect Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist is quite good too.
But I don’t think it’s the brand that’s wrong but the formula. They all use DHA but maybe products that have the ingredient in low concentrations will work best for you. They tend to build-up a tan gradually instead than just giving your skin a brown/orange color straight away.

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