Legs showing natural looking sunless tanner

Understanding How Sunless Tanners Work

Written by: | December 30, 2019 | 6 responses

We hope you’ve had a chance to try our Sunless Tanning Gel, but if not, now’s a great time to order a sample. It creates a light-to-medium tan on pale skin tones, and we love its gel feel and fast absorption (no more waiting around in a towel as it dries). Let’s break down how sunless tanners work, how the skin accepts this tan, and everything else you (and your customers) may want to know about it.

What Tans Skin in Sunless Tanners?

Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is a well-loved and common ingredient in sunless tanners to create the illusion of beautifully tanned skin. Our DHA is plant-based and derived from vegetable glycerin, so we feel good about using it on our bodies. Tanning lotions can contain up to 15% DHA, though many are usually in the 3-5% range due to cost. Higher rates also increase the chance of streakiness upon application and the tan is darker.

The Discovery of DHA to Tan Skin

As with so many discoveries, DHA was accidentally discovered to tan skin by Eva Wittgenstein. As a scientist studying the use of DHA orally, Wittgenstein noted that spillages of DHA on the skin led to a change in color. Research on this effect culminated with the first tanning lotion being introduced in the 1960’s and since then, while desired by many, products tend to have the reputation of being orange or streaky. However, formulations have improved so much since, and we are happy to present our new Sunless Tanning Gel to you.

How Do Sunless Tanners Work?

The way DHA works on appearing to give our skin a tan is a reaction called the Maillard effect. This is the reaction that is responsible for browning in foods such as meat when they’re cooked—think of cheese turning a golden brown on pizza. DHA works by adding the color to the dead skin cells on the surface of our skin.

Skin Cells and How They Tan

The cells in all layers of skin except the stratum basale are called keratinocytes. A keratinocyte is a cell that manufactures and stores the protein keratin. Keratin is an intracellular fibrous protein that gives hair, nails, and skin their hardness and water-resistant properties. The keratinocytes in the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of skin) are dead and regularly slough away, being replaced by cells from the deeper layers.

As we get older, we choose to exfoliate gently but more frequently. Teen years have prime sloughing, but as we age, the sloughing slows down so we exfoliate with chemical or physical exfoliants to aid in the renewal of our skin. As mentioned, we are only exfoliating the stratum corneum. Amino acids in this dead layer of skin can react with DHA in order to produce chemicals called melanoidins. The melanoidins produced by tanning products absorb certain wavelengths of light due to their structure, resulting in a visually browning effect on the skin.

Maintaining a barrier of dead skin can be better protection from pathogens so over exfoliating is never recommended. However, before self-tanning products are used, it is highly recommended to exfoliate as the dead cells on the outer most layer (the stratum corneum) can look scaly. With the tan the scalyness will be more obvious and the tan will look less even.

We recommend our Bamboo Face & Body Polish. It’s gentle enough to not break through the skin and cause new skin to hurt. It also helps to make the surface more pliable which prevents cracking.

How Long to See Results from a Self-Tanner?

DHA doesn’t take effect immediately but does react quickly—usually it takes 2-4 hours to see results. It can continue darkening for as much as 72 hours. Because it’s the dead cells on the skin’s surface that it affects, the tan it induces lasts for up to ten days, fading as these dead skin cells are shed. Reapplication is necessary to maintain the effect, so you may want to do patch test before reapplying all over to get the level of tan correct.

Not a Substitute for SPF Sunscreen

Self-tanning products are obviously a convenient way to avoid an associated risk of sunburn. However, studies have shown that, after application of tanning lotions, the skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet light increases slightly, so we recommend that proper sunscreen should still be applied when using self-tanning products.


Let us know what you think about the new Sunless Tanning Gel by contacting customer service or leaving a review. And remember, a little goes a long way!

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