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Sunless Tanning: What's Behind the Label

By Alex Schechter
Posted: April 28, 2008, from the August 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

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     How does a sunless tan actually work? One of the most popular ways a sunless tan in created is through the presence of one main ingredient: dihydroxyacetone, commonly referred to as DHA.  DHA is an FDA-approved, sugar-based ingredient, typically derived from beets or sugarcane, which reacts with the top layer of the skin to turn it a brown or tan color. This color takes up to several hours to fully develop, and thus, users are advised to avoid washing, swimming, and if possible, sweating heavily for up to eight hours after a sunless tanning session.
     Because DHA reacts with the outermost layer of the skin, it is important for users to exfoliate properly before receiving a spray tan or self-tan so that the DHA can react with a smooth, fresh layer of skin, ensuring the best results. The exact length of time the sunless tan will last varies depending on the sunless product, its application and the user’s pre-sunless tan preparation and post-tan maintenance regimen, but typically results can be expected to last up to a week.

     How many ingredients does a sunless tanning product have? When looking at the label of a sunless tanning product, check out the number of ingredients. A great sunless tan doesn’t require a laundry list of additives; it can be achieved with a minimal number of ingredients. As a general rule, the more ingredients any product has, the greater the probability that a user will have an adverse or allergic reaction to it. Look for products that have the fewest ingredients but still deliver optimum results. Also keep in mind that the number of ingredients is only one part of the equation; it is also critical to understand what else is in there.

     What else is in a sunless tanning product? When looking at a sunless tanning product’s label, see what other ingredients are going into the solution. Does it contain oil, aloe vera, alcohol or fragrances?
     Because DHA tends to have a drying effect on the skin, many sunless tanning products, particularly spray tan solutions, include oils or aloe vera to add moisture back into the skin. However, the downside to having oils or aloe vera in the tanning solution is that it can make the skin feel sticky or tacky, and it dramatically increases the drying time of a spray tan. Some sunless solutions can take almost 20 minutes to dry, even in front of a fan, which can be an inconvenience to the client and to your business.
     Also, see if the sunless tanning solution contains ethyl alcohol, commonly referred to simply as alcohol, as it is an ingredient to avoid. Ethyl alcohol is often used to speed up drying time to counter the effect of the presence of oil or aloe vera, but the result is that it can be very drying to the skin.
     An additional note about alcohol is that there are different ingredients that belong to the chemical group of alcohols contained in cosmetic products, which have completely different functions from ethyl alcohol. For instance, stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and others are used as emollients, emulsifiers and thickening agents, and therefore do not have a drying effect.
Another ingredient to look for in a sunless tanning product is fragrance. Fragrance, as defined by the FDA, is “any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product.”3 According to the FDA, fragrances have been cited by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group as the number one “most common cause of allergic and irritant reactions.”3 Thus, it is ideal to find sunless solutions that are fragrance-free.

Labels decoded
     These are some of the main items to consider when reviewing the label on a sunless tanning product, whether it is a solution for professional spray tanning or self-tanner for home application. It is always important to do your homework with any skin care product you buy and purchase only from reputable suppliers to ensure the products you use are not only safe, but also deliver the best possible results.
     Always look at a sunless tanning product’s label, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. All manufacturers should be able to explain what their labels mean and why their products include certain ingredients, so you can feel confident that you are using a quality product that is also healthy for the skin. 

(All accessed April 27, 2007)