Self-tanning products for bronze tan, without sunbathing

Surely there was a time when you wanted a beautiful bronze skin without having to roast under the sun. Self-tanning products are a good solution. That may be because of today's world where tanned skin represents an ideal. But is that really a healthy ideal?

Surely there was a time when you wanted a beautiful bronze skin without having to roast under the sun. Self-tanning products are a good solution. That may be because of today’s world where tanned skin represents an ideal. But is that really a healthy ideal?

Nowadays, the majority of people are already aware that UV rays are responsible for aging and increased chances for skin cancer. In some countries the sun doesn’t shine as often as for example in Barcelona. That’s why the needs of the consumers have shifted from sun creams to tanning lotions.

What determines our skin colour?

In our skin, there are 2 different types of melanin pigment: eumelanin (brown pigment) and pheomelanin (orange pigment), which are responsible for the colour of our skin.

What even are self-tanning products?

Self-tanning products are products that help us achieve beautiful bronze skin without sunbathing. Such products do NOT contain protection against UV rays. Keep in mind that products that provide UV protection need to be applied additionally.

In laboratory in college we made a self-tanning product (photo is posted with approval of the author)

Which active ingredients help us to achieve apparent tanned skin?

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

DHA is the most known active ingredient that causes skin coloration. It’s formed in our body, so therefore it is harmless. DHA is present in almost every self-tanning product on the market. It is also the only colour supplement used in self-tanning products authorized by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

How and when did they even realize that the DHA can work as a self-tanning ingredient?

In 1950s, at the American Paediatric Hospital. They performed an oral DHA test in children who previously had problems with proper glycogen storage (diabetes). Because some children experienced regurgitation (some medicines have been spit out), the DHA accidentally got to the surface of the skin. Where it affected the skin, the skin darkened. That is how it has been found that DHA acts as a tanning agent. By accident of course.

The first self-tanning products came to the market in 1977 (according to some data already in 1959). Since then, demands for such products have grown. The biggest problem of DHA was and still is, the unevenness of the application and the unnatural appearance of the colour, the tone is also dark orange, which is not very tasty to see.

How much time after application can I expect effects?

DHA is usually present in self-tanning lotions in concentrations from 3 to 5%. The change in skin tone is usually seen 1 hour after the application, but requires 8-24 hours to fully develop and lasts for 5-7 days.

The number of applications depends on the location and composition of the skin (the face needs more frequent deposits than arms and legs for example).

Fotografija: Neja Stojnić
Weak points of DHA in self-tanning products

The biggest problem of DHA is the yellow/orange skin tone that it causes and which looks very unnatural. DHA also heavily drains our skin. It’s sensitive to strong acids and bases, increased temperature, the presence of microorganisms and is stable at pH 4-6. It is not appropriate for pregnant women, asthmatics and those who have an allergy to self-tanning products. Regular and long-term use is not recommended. It mustn’t get in touch with your lips, eyes or mucous membranes. It can irritate the skin, but studies say that in moderation DHA is safe.


L-erythrulose is another active tanning ingredient. The skin looks much more natural after the application of the product and also coloration is more even. That’s because the reaction in the skin is much slower (the colouring occurs within 2 days) and is also less intense (in comparison with DHA). It is found in self-tanning products in concentrations from 1 to 3%. It doesn’t dry out and doesn’t irritate the skin, nor does it cause allergic reactions.

There are also vegetable dyes that improve the self-tanning process. They are based on henna and walnut, which are not so persistent and therefore less common in cosmetic products.

Otherwise, the best compromise is the combination of DHA and erythrulose. Why? Because using both helps to get fast coloration and more natural tan (erythrulose). That’s exactly what we want, don’t we?

How do self-tanning ingredients work?

DHA and erythrulose work on the same principle. They react with amino groups, peptides and proteins in the corneous layer of the epidermis. The reaction occurs on the surface of the skin and doesn’t penetrate deeper, therefore the colour is only persistent for relatively short amount of time. The self-tanning reaction may be influenced by several factors or skin characteristics (type, firmness, dryness …). But the colour fades because of the natural peeling of the skin.

How to get a nicer tan?

In the table, we collected data on how certain substances in self-tanning products work (what’s their effect). There are different results if we are talking about dihydroxyacetone or erythrulose. All these ingredients beautify the tan and ˝kill˝ the red or yellow tone.

Humectants (up to 5%) High impact in yellow and red High impact in yellow
Emolients High impact in yellow, less in red High impact in red and less in yellow
UV filters (up to 2%) High impact in yellow and red TiO2 – red High impact in yellow TiO2 – yellow
Vitamines (up to 5%) Low impact in yellow and red Retinyl palmitate – the most intensive colour High impact in yellow, less in red. Ascorbic acid – red
Thickeners High impact in the yellow, low impact in red Low impact in yellow, no impact in red
Active ingredients Low impact in yellow and red Low impact in yellow

In addition to all of these, the final effects of the self-tanning product are also affected by aminoacid derivatives and antioxidants in combination with active ingredients.

After application, it is recomended not to expose to the sun for some time; the skin shouldn’t be wiped with a towel. Skin shouldn’t come in contact with water.

How about you? Do you use self-tanning products or do you rather sunbathe? Or maybe the third option, you are rather pale, like we are.


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