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Posts for tag: sunless tanning

By Peter Accetta MD
September 08, 2013
Category: Skin Care

Self tanning creams are becoming more popular and patients always have  questions concerning the safety of these products.  It turns out that self tanning creams are not new and have been commercially available since 1959. A recent article in the journal Cosmetic Dermatology reviewed self tanners and I will highlight the most interesting points for our readers.

All self tanners are based on the same chemical, dihydroxyacetone (DHA)  which is a sugar.  When applied to the skin it reacts with amino acids, peptides and proteins in the outermost layer of skin called the stratum corneum.  The reactions result in the development of pigmented molecules called melanoidins.  DHA does not penetrate through the skin and so there is no systemic absorption.  Areas with a thick stratum corneum such as elbows, knees, palms and soles will show a more intense browning while the face with thin stratum corneum will brown less intensely. Self tanning products come in different strengths, generally 3-5% so one strategy for even color is to use a less potent formulations on areas with the thickest skin.

Key Points

  • DHA is nontoxic and is safe for both ingestion and topical formulations, however, there is no oral formulation for tanning.
  • Self tanners are not photoprotective, you still need to wear sunscreen.  Some sunscreens now contain DHA but it does not contribute to the SPF of the product.
  • The chemical reaction is generally noticeable within one hour but may take a day to reach maximum effect.
  • Since the DHA reaction occurs in the outermost layer of skin the brown pigment can be removed by exfoliation therefore in areas with a thin stratum corneum such as the face you should use the tanner daily to maintain an even color.  Apply less  product and less often toeasily stained areas, such as the elbows, knees, ankles and toes.

Lastly DHA has a strong odor that you may not be able to mask with fragrences.  I always know when my wife is using self tanner and we tease that she "smells like the jungle".

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