Safe Sunless Tanning
I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, but when it comes to self tanning I am definitely a veteran. I’ve tried it all, for years. From $10 lotions, to $50 mousse, to professional spray tans - I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the orange.
Self tanning is undeniably a safer alternative than UV rays and tanning beds, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually started looking into what was in my tanning products. Like most beauty products in America, there’s not much regulation around what goes into self tanners, or how it’s applied.
So, if you care about what you put onto your skin (which you totally should), or you’re feeling a little overwhelmed navigating the ever-growing options for sunless tanning products, I’m here to offer some safe self tanning 101 and help narrow your search.
Disclaimer: All research was done through public information and studies published on Google. I am not a scientist of any sort, and individual education of the ingredients used in cosmetic products is always encouraged! My goal is simply to do some of the leg work for you and share my findings:)
The science of self tanning
Let’s start with the most important ingredient in your tanning products: dihydroxyacetone. Stick with me! I know it sounds a little intimidating.
Dihydroxyacetone (or DHA) is the ingredient that allows you to achieve a bronzed glow, and is used in the majority of self tanning products on the market. It’s basically a sugar that reacts with the surface of your skin to create a browning effect - the same Maillard reaction that many foods go through when you cook them (like toasting bread).
DHA can be derived naturally or created synthetically, and on a scale of 1-10 (1=safe, 10=harmful) on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database, it’s rated a 1-4 depending on the usage.
What are the risks and regulations?
DHA is approved for topical use in self tanning products, and has been cited to pose no health risks at a concentration of up to 10%. However, research shows that significant exposure to spray tans, where DHA is easily inhaled or absorbed through your eyes and mouth, may lead to cell damage, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cancer. Thus, the FDA does NOT approve the use of DHA products in spray tans.
Note: just because the FDA doesn’t approve something doesn’t mean that it’s not allowed on the market, it just means it won’t get their stamp of approval. That being said, it’s highly likely that your local tanning salon or at home spray tan uses DHA.
Also, sorry to be the one to break this to ya, but research has found that the reaction of DHA on your skin (regardless of if it’s in a spray, lotion or mousse) may attack cell structures and degrade collagen and elastin fibers, promoting premature aging. Sadly, it looks like all tanning ages us in some way. It’s important to note that this process is accelerated under sun radiation, so it is especially important to wear sunscreen when using self tanner!
A safe self tan
In vitro studies have shown no significant absorption of DHA when applied safely topically. Here’s the three biggest things to remember when it comes to safe application:
Skip the spray! I understand wanting a professional spray tan for a big event, but I definitely wouldn’t suggest this as your go-to form of achieving regular color. Personally, I like to stick with lotion, because I feel it’s the easiest application.
Don’t apply self tanner on your face. I don’t care if tanning brands boast about being safe to use on your face. The thin areas of skin and mucous membranes around the eyes, nose and mouth are very susceptible to product absorption and should absolutely be avoided regardless the form of tanner.
Don’t apply self tanner on open wounds. But I think you could have probably figured that one out :)
Thankfully, as more research is conducted on self-tanning, tanning formulations are continuously improving. Many brands are also recognizing the importance of using clean, safe ingredients in their products (yay!), along with adding nourishing ingredients like antioxidants to combat that premature aging I mentioned.
Here are 3 clean tanning brands that I have come across (I check all products and ingredients through the EW Skin Deep Database or the Think Dirty App):
Luna Bronze is an Australian based sunless tanning and skincare brand that has been my current go-to self tanner. All Luna Bronze products are made from up to 99% organic, natural and naturally-derived ingredients, including natural DHA as per EcoCert® standards, and are vegan and cruelty free. I also love their products because on top of providing natural-looking color, they are also super moisturizing and smell good using natural fragrances like orange and lemon oils. I use the Radiant Self Tanning Lotion, and the Glow Gradual Tanning Moisturizer. You can shop their products here.
Vita Liberata boasts becoming the first completely non-toxic tanning brand free from parabens, perfume, alcohol and all chemicals of concern. They are also the self tanner of choice for many celebrities and some of the world's top spas. Vita Liberata has a massive range of products from traditional tanning lotions, to foaming tan waters and many more. Out of their seriously large collection of products I have personally only used their Fabulous Self Tanning Gradual Tan Lotion. You can shop the Vita Liberata collection here.
3.Beauty by Earth
Beauty by Earth sells a collection of natural, cruelty free, and safe ingredient beauty products. They only have one self tanner that I have not personally tried, but it has tons of 5 star reviews from happy customers on their website, and almost 3,000 reviews on Amazon! It’s also rated a 1 on the EWG Skin Deep Database. You can shop their tanner on their website or on Amazon.
All in all, self tanning (from my research) is still wayyyyy safer than over exposing your skin to UV rays, and is the best option if you’re looking to maintain a healthy glow year round! But, like many beauty products, it’s important to be educated on the potential risks and understand the proper uses and regulations.
Have you come across any other clean tanning products? I would love to know!
Happy tanning, friends:)