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By Cynthia Bailey MD.

Dermatologist explains sunless tanning.

Sunless tanners give you warm skin color without prematurely skin aging UV exposure. Get great results when you apply them correctly. Understanding how they work will help you achieve success.

How do sunless tanning products work?

Sunless tanners contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This reacts with the dead cells on our outer skin layer called the stratum corneum to darken them. It looks pretty convincingly like a tan when applied correctly. The color lasts until the dead cells have naturally sloughed off, which is about a few days.

Do sunless tanners give you sun protection?

No! The tan color does not protect your skin from UV ray damage. Most sunless tanners don’t contain sunscreen. Frankly, you don’t want a multitasking product because sunscreen needs to be applied thickly to protect your skin. Sunless tanners are best applied in a thin coat to avoid streaking!

Are sunless tanners safe?

The FDA considers them generally safe. They are certainly safer for your skin than tanning. It is important not to inhale them or to apply them to mucous membranes including lips, nose and around the delicate skin of the eyes. Always follow the directions on the label of your home use sunless tanning products. I don’t recommend spray sunless tanners. Also, most sunless tanners have heavy perfume to hide the odor of the dihydroxyacetone. Perfume is a potent skin allergen and I recommend people use only hypoallergenic sunless tanning products such as the Avene Sunless Tanner.

What is the best way to apply sunless tanning lotion to get great results - dermatologist's 4 easy steps?

  1. Always exfoliate your skin first to remove excessive dead skin that will stain excessively. Pay particular attention to exfoliating the thicker skin of your elbows, knees, ankles, wrists and knuckles. The best exfoliation products come in my Ultra-Fast Body Smoothing Triple Action Kit. 
  2. Apply tanner in sections, massaging product evenly over your skin and going back in circular motions to avoid streaking. Massage the product on the thicker areas of your elbows, knees and ankles last when you have just a small amount of product residue on your palms. Consider how the sun tans skin, creating a darker color on the outer surfaces of your arms than the inner surfaces. Try to recreate that you’re your tanner application. When you are done, be sure to wash your hands well or they will stain darker tan. You can apply tanner with gloves to avoid tanning your palms. 
  3. If your joint areas typically pick up too much color, wipe them with a damp towel before the product dries. Any streaking can be evened-out with exfoliation in the shower the next time you bathe. 
  4. Let your tanner dry before you get dressed. Wait at least 10 minutes, wear loose clothing of a dark color and try to avoid sweating. Tanner products may discolor fabric. 

Why do sunless tanners make your skin look dry?

They stain the outer dead cell layer and accentuate any scale. Keep your skin moisturized in between use. Apply a good moisturizer within the magic 3 minutes after every bath or shower. For most days, a deeply hydrating moisturizer such as my hypoallergenic and deeply hydrating Natural Lotion is perfect. At least twice a week use a glycolic acid moisturizer to prevent excessive dead cell build-up. This gives you a really nice tanning look. Yes, you will have fewer layers of dead cells to stain and will have to apply tanner more frequently, but the results are worth it.