Jan. 30, 2002 -- Sunless or self-tanning lotions have made a big splash in recent years, but not at the beach or pool. Instead of basking in the sun and exposing themselves to damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation for the sake of a tan, consumers are playing it smart and finding that self-tanning products, or sunless tanners, are a healthy alternative to achieving a golden glow from the sun.
Today's self-tanners are easier to use and deliver better results than earlier products. Still, not all self-tanning lotions are created alike, according to Stanley B. Levy, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C. "Consumers really need to look at the packaging of these products to ensure that what they are really buying is a self-tanner that contains [an active ingredient known as] dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, and not one of these other products that claim to be a tanning aid," he says.
DHA is a colorless sugar that darkens the skin by staining. It does its work by interacting with the dead cells found in the uppermost layer of the skin, producing a color change. As the dead skin cells are naturally sloughed off, the color gradually fades.
Levy says it's important to note that although the skin will darken, these products provide modest protection against ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation. Some self-tanning products add sunscreens to their formulas. The added sunscreens, however, only last for a few hours, not the duration of the tan. Studies also have shown that the brown color that is produced on the skin from DHA may provide protection from ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays. Both UVA and UVB have been linked to skin cancer and premature aging of the skin.
"Consumers need to be aware that while the darkened skin color produced by sunless tanners may offer some limited UVA protection, there is no damage done to the skin to achieve this color change. Skin darkened through the sun or tanning beds, however, is actually damaged," Levy tells WebMD.
"It's important [for consumers] to consider any product that might keep them healthier," Levy adds. "Research in the health-related benefits of sunless tanners is really exciting, and the story of sunless tanners won't end here. We'll continue to learn more about these products in the future."