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What are the active ingredients in self tanners - what exactly makes them work?
Get Smart about Self Tanners

Want a great, even tan without the inevitable complications of UV rays and tanning beds? Fortunately, it’s easy to create a beautiful tan with self-tanning products.

Why the desire?
In the early to mid twentieth century, tans became desirable as they portrayed health and athleticism. Tans also became associated with expensive, exotic beach vacations.

Not much has changed today; tanning paints the same healthy, active, wealthy picture. And it makes us feel better: According to Helen Foster in The Beauty Book, 51 percent of people feel that a tan increases self-image and sex appeal.

The secret ingredient is...
All self-tanners contain dihydroxyacetone or DHA, a type of sugar. Although colorless, DHA causes a chemical reaction when it contacts amino acid proteins in epidermis skin cells. The reaction enhances and deepens skin color. Used for over 35 years, DHA is safe and FDA-approved.

Other ingredients in self-tanners include aloe and vitamins for moisture, alpha hydroxy acids for smoothness and antioxidants for protection, according to Carefair. Dermatologist Leslie Baumann notes another bonus of antioxidants – they create a natural, believable tan.

Types of tanning products
Depending on how much color you want and where you want it, you can find the perfect self-tanner for your needs. Looking for a facial tanner? Self-tanners for the face usually have a lighter texture than body products. Pick a facial tanner that’s noncomedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores and cause acne. Cream tans are richer, so they’re great for the body.

Here’s how to pick the right product type for you.

  • Bronzing gels and powders provide the face sheer, sun-kissed color. They come off easily with water – not a good idea if you’re swimming! Once bronzer is applied, it stays that color – it won’t get darker with time, unlike other products, notes chemist and biologist Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., for About.
  • Worried about uneven streaks? Try a tinted tan. When applied, it’s very dark, so you’ll be able to see exactly where you’ve put it and where you’ve missed areas. Although a tinted tan starts out very dark, it lightens in a few hours.
  • Spray tans come in a bottle with a trigger – just spray on the mist! Foster writes that spray tans are a cinch to apply, but Carefair warns that they’re tricky – especially for beginners.
  • Want professional results? Some salons offer airbrush tanning through a special spray-on process. Airbrush tanning is quick and easy. If you want a deeper tan, the artist simply sprays more color. Be sure to wear a bathing suit, protective eye goggles, lip balm and earplugs.

Note that no self-tanners protect you from sun damage, so you still must wear broad-spectrum sunscreen!

Application advice
Follow these tips for a flawless at-home tan.

  1. Exfoliate your face and body using scrub, body polish, loofah or sponge. Exfoliation removes dry rough skin so you’ll be silky smooth and your tanner will apply evenly, writes Nikki Goldstein for Notebook magazine.
  2. When applying tanner, wear gloves and use circular motions, advises Foster. Or, as Carefair suggests, use a cheap foam paintbrush from a home improvement store. Concentrate on one area before moving onto another.
  3. Apply tanner sparingly on dry knees, elbows or feet, and save these for the end. Finish by removing gloves and putting tanner on the back of your hand. Then rub it with the back of your other hand, suggests Foster.
  4. Wait until the tanner has absorbed. Still want deeper color? Carefully add another thin layer.
  5. Don’t apply lotions or creams for two hours. They may affect color and pigmentation, warns Dr. Baumann.

Keep on glowing
Once you’re tan, how can you keep that color? The experts say – moisturize. A fake tan lasts around five to 10 days and fades as outer skin layers slough off. If you have dry skin, it may flake away sooner and take your tan with it. Apply moisturizer to hydrate skin, and re-use self-tanner every few days to keep your color, says Dr. Helmenstine.

» To get your smart tan


Take the drama out of sunless tanning. (June 8, 2007).
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from Yahoo Health.

All about airbrush tanning.
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from

How to fake a year round glow.
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from

Your winter guide to sunless tanning.
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from

The self-tanning trick that takes off pounds.
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from Good Housekeeping.

The Beauty Book.
Bath, U.K.: Parragon Publishing. pp. 195-197.

Bronzed summer.
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from Notebook

How do sunless tanning products work?
Retrieved February 21, 2008 from

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