Summer is “tanning season” for those who enjoy the look of a darker skin tone. If you spend time soaking up the sun’s rays to achieve that sun-kissed glow, consider a safer alternative and get a spray tan instead. Read on to learn more about why sunless tanning is better for you than sun tanning.

Tanning is your body’s natural response to damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When your skin is exposed to UV radiation, it reacts by trying to protect the DNA in the nucleus. It does this by increasing the pigment melanin, which acts as a protective cap over the nucleus.

Tanning beds escalate this biological process with artificial UV radiation, causing detrimental long term effects. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, indoor tanning is connected to approximately 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year. As a result, sunless tanning products have been developed as a safer alternative since they lack the dangers associated with indoor tanning beds.

How Does Sunless Tanning Work?

Sunless tanning refers to self-tanner lotions, spray tans, fake tans and other products that are directly applied to your skin in order to obtain your golden “glow”. A common ingredient, DHA, connects all of these sunless tanning products together.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) was discovered in the 1930s and has been used cosmetically since 1959. It is the active compound in self-tanners that is responsible for darkening your skin. Currently, DHA is the only sunless tanning chemical approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

DHA is a form of sugar that chemically reacts with the proteins in your stratum corneum, the first layer of your epidermis.

Since we are constantly shedding the outer layer of our skin, the effects of sunless tanners tend to last for a number of days. For longer lasting effects, visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s article on 8 essential steps for applying self-tanner here. How you apply your self-tanner or spray tan can make all the difference in how it looks and how long it lasts! 

Are There Any Dangers Associated with Sunless Tanning?

There are few risks associated with sunless tanner lotions. The FDA recommends avoiding applying self-tanner products on certain areas, such as close to your eyes or inside of your mouth. These skin areas are more sensitive and can become irritated easily.

However, if you choose to enter a spray tanning facility, the Mayo Clinic advises you to cover your eyes and to close your mouth to avoid ingesting the sunless tanner. Breathing in these chemicals can be harmful to your respiratory system.

Other questions have been raised about whether or not DHA is absorbed through your skin when applied. Yet, studies have shown that DHA is not absorbed into your body when applied topically since sunless tanners only stain the first layer of your epidermis.

A common misconception is when people assume that a self-applied tanner will provide protection from the sun. Unless the product specifically states that it contains SPF, do not assume you are protected from the sun. Self-tanners usually have a low SPF of 2-3 as stated by the FDA.

In fact, products containing 20% DHA in conjunction with sun exposure have been found to triple the chances of developing sun-induced wrinkles. Although 20% DHA is usually a higher percentage than in over-the-counter sunless tanning products, it is still very important to either stay out of the sun or to diligently apply a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher over your self-tanner.

The Final Word On Sunless Tanning

From the perspective of a Belleville, Illinois skin doctor, when people ask us the best way to tan, our response is almost always: Don’t. A spray tan is a safe alternative to tanning if that is your desired look.