December 2021 Dermascope Magazine

by Annette Hanson, founder of Atelier Esthétique Institute of Esthetics

Excessive, unprotected sun exposure is damaging to skin. It puts clients at risk for sunburn and ages them prematurely. Those are facts. Worst case scenario, it can cause skin cancer. Using a self-tanner is a practical alternative if clients are sun worshippers, but are these products safe? How do they work? Do they provide any sun protection? Is there a risk?

If clients are a fan of that sun-kissed glow, but do not want to expose skin to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, they can get that tanned look from a bottle. When skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun, melanin spreads to the surface in a fight-or-flight response to protect skin from damage, creating the darker pigment. Self-tanners give that faux glow without all the serious side effects of sun damage. They are sold over the counter in the form of lotions, creams, and sprays. Clients can even go to a booth and get professionally spray-tanned car-wash style. If clients opt for this option, they should remember to exfoliate.


How do these products simulate a tan? They contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This color additive, along with amino acids, react with the dead cells in the skin’s surface to temporarily darken skin. However, most of these products do not contain sun protection. Furthermore, products that do contain sunscreen are only effective for a couple of hours.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved dihydroxyacetone to be applied to skin externally. The FDA warns against applying dihydroxyacetone to areas covered by mucous membranes (lips, nose, and eye area) and inhaling it because the risks of doing so are inconclusive. If clients are in a spray-tanning booth, they should ask how their eyes, mouth, nose, and ears will be protected and how they will be protected from inhaling the tanning spray. However, the layer of color does not create any form of barrier on skin, nor does it keep clients from getting sunburned. If clients self-tan at home, there are a few steps to follow for best results. They must exfoliate to remove excess dead skin cells and spend extra time on areas with thick skin, like knees, elbows, and ankles. Clients should apply the tanner in sections, starting with arms, then legs and torso.

It is important to dilute the tanning effect in joint areas because the knees, elbows, and ankles will absorb most of the product. Adding lotion to the tanner will thin the consistency and color. Finally, clients need to wait at least 10 minutes for the product to dry before getting dressed and avoid any heavy sweating. Some people will go to extreme lengths to look like a bronzed goddess. There are even sunless tanning pills that typically contain the food color additive canthaxanthin. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn skin to an orange or brown color. Doctors say it can take up to two weeks for the dyes to build up in the body and show up on skin. These pills do not put skin at risk to ultraviolet rays, but people are creating a whole slew of other health problems like hives, impaired vision, and even moderate to severe liver damage. Bottom line, if clients are sporting the perfect fake tan, do not let that deep color fool you. It could be hiding a red and painful sunburn. Clients still need to wear a good broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Additionally, if clients are spending hours outdoors, they need to reapply the product every two hours. Inform them that the risk is not worth the temporary glow and to always use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 30.