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Best self-tanners and resolution of frequent doubts

Find out which are the best self-tanners and the resolution of frequent doubts about their use, safety and impact.

With the end of summer, the golden tone of the skin is lost, but can we do something to preserve it or have it safe all year round? It's essential to remember that no dermatologist, myself included, is going to recommend sunbathing. In the following text we review the products capable of achieving a tanned skin color avoiding sun exposure. It is a growing market.

1. What are the best self-tanners, what do they wear and how do they work?

Practically all self-tanners on the market have as active principle the Dihydroxyacetone, hereinafter DHA (1,2). DHA can be combined with other ingredients capable of inducing pigmentation such as:

  • erythrulose: a derivative of sugar (famous ¨sugar cane¨ tanning).
  • Tyrosine derivatives: capable of inducing pigmentation in the skin.
  • Naphthoquinone: an orange pigment obtained from Henna.

These substances induce skin pigmentation, but it is not a tan. DHA darkens the skin by reacting with amines present in the stratum corneum (the most superficial part of the skin) and achieves more coloration when used in higher concentrations. Erythrulose acts in an equivalent way and even when it has a lower color intensity than DHA, when formulated together, produce a More homogeneous and long-lasting tan. Tyrosine derivatives are accelerators of the natural pigmentation of melanin in the skin.

The main limitation of DHA is that it is unstable and thermolabile. For this reason, we will find it in lipophilic emulsions of basic PH, in concentrations from 3 to 20%, which try to ensure a homogeneous distribution of the active ingredient in the skin (1).

Erythrulose is much more stable and easier to formulate, however, as we have discussed, it is less potent than DHA.

2. Do self-tanners protect from the sun?

Interestingly, dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in high doses darkens the stratum corneum and provides the identical to a sun protection factor of 2 or 3. However, this contribution is entirely insufficient be considered a protector of ultraviolet radiation (1).

3. Are self-tanners safe?

Toxicity studies conducted with DHA have shown that it is devoid of both applied to the skin and systemic (inhaled) toxicity. Is contemplated safe for use in humans at concentrations below 10%, and this is the concentration limit set by European law (1).

Contact dermatitis or "allergy" to DHA is described in the literature, however, it occurs in the form of anecdotal or rare cases. Basically it can be considered that there is such an opportunity.

4. How to apply self-tanners?

In practice it is preferable to apply repeatedly a product less concentrated than once a highly concentrated product. In this way, a more uniform coloration is developed that is more reminiscent of a natural tan. The DHA application does not achieve immediate coloration, but it takes two to six hours to start to appear (1,2).

Woman applying self tanner

5. Tanning pills? Are they good for something?

They are food complexes based on carotenes and other carotenoids, lycopenes, vitamins and antioxidants. These are yellow-orange or red fat-soluble plant pigments that accumulate in subcutaneous fat, giving the skin a yellowish tint. Provides a healthy glow and they are also antioxidants and protect from sun damage and free radicals (aging). However, in isolation, they do not achieve more "color" than self-tanning creams (1).

6. What is the use of self-tanners in dermatology?

Self-tanners can be used to camouflage or hide lighter areas of skin. In scars or hypopigmented spots. Its use has been shown as an especially effective treatment alternative for vitiligo in children.

7. Could the widespread use of self-tanning creams in the population prevent skin cancer?

Self-tanning creams are safe and harmless to the skin, especially when compared to sunbathing to tan.

In a study of 250 women, awareness was raised about the use of self-tanners as an option to sun exposure. In the short term, there was a reduction in sunburn (associated with skin cancer) and increased awareness of other sun protection measures, such as clothing (5). However, other studies find the opposite, and that is that the use of self-tanners is also associated with the search for a brown appearance of the skin and the use of ultraviolet cabins and the performance of outdoor activities (4). Therefore, it is not clear.

There are no long-term studies on the use of self-tanners, but we already know about them, reduce solar radiation in our skin decreases the chance of having skin cancer.

I hope you find it useful and I take this opportunity to remind you that the best cosmetic that I can recommend is the use of sunscreen.


1. Martini MC. Self-tanning and artificial tanning products [Self-tanning and sunless tanning products]. Ann Dermatol Venereol. 2017; 144: 638-644.

two. Draelos ZD. Self-tanning lotions: are they a healthy way to tan? I'm J Clin Dermatol. 2002; 3: 317-8.

3. Zokaie S, Singh S, Wakelin SH. Allergic contact dermatitis caused by dihydroxyacetone: optimal concentration and vehicle for patch testing. Contact dermatitis. 2011; 64: 291-2.

Four. Paul CL, Bryant J, Turon H, Brozek I, Noble N, Zucca A. A narrative review of the potential for self-tanning products to replace solaria use among people who want a tanned appearance. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2014; 30: 160-6.

5. Pagoto SL, Schneider KL, Oleski J, Bodenlos JS, Ma Y. The sunless study: a randomized beachside trial of a skin cancer prevention intervention promoting sunless tanning. Arch Dermatol. 2010; 146: 979-84.

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