Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Spray tans and Self-Tanners

Posted in self-tanner, tanning by commorancy on July 29, 2009

As a follow up to Sunscreens vs Natural Tanning, I thought I would discuss spray tans and self-tanners. Because suntanning is now almost considered taboo (thanks to the sunscreen and medical industries), many people opt to use a Mystic, Magic or Mist-On spray tanning booth to get that golden glow.  A lot of people, for whatever reason, feel these are safer alternatives to sunlight produced color (melanin).  Here’s some information that you may not know about these spray tan and self-tanners.

Spray Tan Booths

How safe are spray tans?  Well, let’s start with what’s in these spray tanning formulations.  Obviously, there’s water in the solution.  The active ingredient (that tans you) is Dihydroxyacetone (known as DHA) and possibly even Erythrulose.  Both of these ingredients provide color, but in different ways.  Both Erythrulose and DHA are the ingredients in most off-the-shelf self-tanning products that you can find in the drug store.  I say ‘most’ because there are other alternatives that can provide skin color without self-tanners (although, these are simply dyes, colorants, coatings or powders).  Inactive ingredients include temporary bronzer colors (to give immediate color gratification) and possibly other chemicals to aid in delivery.  There are some spray tan booths that provide clear solutions instead of bronzed solutions (which can mark up clothing). The benefit to the spray tan is that they tend to spray on very evenly and help prevent blotchy, streaky and uneven application.  The drawback to spray tanning is that it aerosolizes the DHA and other ingredients so that you inhale it. Most spray tanning booths offer no ventilation systems during the spray tanning process.  In fact, they don’t want the ventilation because the floating particles may help you tan better.  But, because the solution is aerosolized, you are now inhaling these ingredients.  Yes, you wanted your skin surfaced tan, but did you realized that you are now tanning your lungs and nasal passages?  This is not a good thing.

DHA, Erythrulose and the dyes and colorants are not intended to be inhaled in mist particles.  So, while the spray booths are great for even application, they don’t really offer the necessary ventilation to prevent inhalation of these potentially problematic chemicals. Salons are supposed to provide nose plugs that may help filter out these chemicals.  Too many times, however, salons are out of the plugs and you end up inhaling anyway.  In fact, because of the time it takes to spray tan, you really can’t easily hold your breath.  So, you will eventually breathe in the chemicals.

Note that salons that have spray tan booths may opt to purchase third party DHA solutions.  These are solutions not made by the original manufacturer.   As a result, some people have experienced orange or yellow tones from spray tans in salons.  If you spray tan and your color is highly orange, it’s possible that your salon has opted to buy cheaper refills with cheaper ingredients.

Self-tanners: How they work

The two self-tanners listed above include Erythrulose and Dihydroxyacetone (DHA).  Erythrulose takes up to 5 days to fully appear.  Erythrulose provides a yellowish color to the skin.  The Erythrulose color is used to offset the oranges that DHA provides.  DHA begins developing in 4-6 hours reaching maximum color by 12-15 hours.   DHA’s color actually looks reasonably natural between 4-6 hours after application.  Once DHA begins to darken, however, it begins to show the familiar orange and unnatural look by the 12 hour mark.

Airbrush Tan

For the same reason as a booth is a problem, so is an airbrush.  The airbrush provides finer control and finer particles, but that doesn’t equate to safer inhalation risks unless they provide an active vent hood which can reduce inhalation risk.   Airbrush tans, though, do provide better and more even coverage than a spray tan booth.

Safest Way to Apply Self-tanners

The lotion versions are, in fact, the safest way to apply a self tanner.  While an aerosol makes it even and fast, it also makes it more dangerous for inhalation problems.  So, opting for a lotion prevents the inhalation issues.  The difficulty with lotions is uneven application and the possibility of an orange color.

Why do self-tanners turn orange?

Part of the reason for this is color theory.  If you have a bluish undertone to your skin or are very pale, that mixes with the developing color to produce an orange-ish tone.  If you have a tanned tone, the self-tanner enhances the tan and produces a much more natural color and deepens the tan.  Another reason that DHA turns orange is because of the base ingredients with which it’s mixed.  The lotion base that most brands use are cheap.  As a result, the lotion ingredients change the color of the developing DHA to become more orange.  To avoid this, you want to find a high quality lotion base or alternatively find a self-tanner mixed in a gel base.  Some lotions that work well and keep their proper color are Dave’s Famous Moisture Tan and L’Oreal’s Sublime Bronze Gelee.  Dave’s lotion is made in a white base and has a very light nutty scent. L’Oreal’s product has the typical nasty self-tanner scent, but it spreads on incredibly even (not streaky) and gives very good color.

What skin tones can use self-tanners?

While I know that dermatologists recommend self-tanners, you don’t want people to know you fake bake simply by looking.  So, you need to assess your present skin tone to determine if a self-tanner is right for you.  Certain skin tones do not do well with self-tanners.   For example, the white-bluish skin tones do not fake bake well.   The self-tan will likely make you orange or yellow very fast.  The best you can hope for is getting a very light self-tanner, applying it and then washing it off right as the color develops.  Washing immediately as the color develops lets you stop the color development at a point before it gets too dark. You will also need to find a self-tanner that gets you to the proper color.  Some ‘light’ self-tanners still get way too dark, so you should be cautious.  If at the 12 hour mark you are getting too dark, take a shower and lightly soap and rinse to stop further development.

Why do self-tanners smell?

The developing process between the DHA and the skin’s protein gives off an aroma as a result of the developing process.  The smell has been described as ‘wet dog’, ‘musty’, or ‘earthy’ .  The smell comes to its height at about the 12 hour mark after application.   It begins to subside after the 24 hour mark (when the color begins to wear off).  Because of the smell, this is a very telltale way of knowing when someone has used a self-tanner.  Frankly, I find the smell offensive and refuse to use self-tanners for this reason alone.

Note that Dave’s self-tanner  is made with limited fragrance, so it pretty much smells like the lotion mixed with DHA (it has kind of a nutty scent).  The good thing about this is that there is no fragrance to mix with the developing odor to make an even nastier smell.  Too many self-tanners on the market include entirely horrible fragrances to mask the DHA smell.  So, when the color (and odor) develops and mixes with the fragrance, it can sometimes be a nauseating combination. You want to shower just to get the smell off.  With Dave’s lotion, the light nutty fragrance dissipates rapidly so there is no fragrance left when the DHA color and odor develops… and that’s a blessing in disguise.

Self-tanners make my skin rough and dry

Yes, they do.  The best way to resolve this issue is to use a moisturizer frequently.  If you must use DHA to color your skin, your skin texture will change as a result.  You may find that you don’t like the texture that a self-tanner leaves on your skin.  If that’s the case, you may have to abandon use of DHA.

Flaking, peeling and splotchy uneven wear

Self-tanners don’t wear off evenly.  It can wear off to make your skin look splotchy or odd colored.  This is a lot more apparent when you try to go too dark and your skin is very light.   The good thing, though, is a fake bake usually wears off completely by 7-10 days.  That means, if there was a problem during application, it’s gone pretty fast.  The downside, of course, means that you have to reapply the color every 7-10 days to keep your skin tone.  The problem with reapplication is that you need to completely scrub the color off before adding more.  Otherwise, the new color won’t adhere to your skin well enough.  To make your self-tan last as long as possible, here are some tips.

  1. Scrub your skin with a exfoliating buff pad thoroughly prior to application (to remove as much dead dry skin as possible).
  2. Let your skin dry completely before application
  3. Apply a small amount of moisturizing (non-tanning) lotion to the backs of your hands, knuckles,  knees, elbows and ankles to prevent full strength DHA absorption
  4. Once the color appears, apply lotion daily to keep the tan as long as possible
  5. Remove the tan fully with a buff-pad once the tan begins to noticeably flake

Always fully remove any previous self-tan before applying a new tan.  If you don’t do this, your tan will become uneven and may go on too dark.  So, remove the old tan first.

Removing the old self-tan

To remove a self-tan, the best way is to wait until most of it has worn off. Then, use a body exfoliating buff pad to rub the rest off.  The benefit if using a buff pad is that it will get all of the old color off and, at the same time, prep your skin for a new tan.  You should always prepare your skin by exfoliation prior to using a self-tanner.  Otherwise, it may wear unevenly and/or turn way too dark in places.

Tips for working with self-tanners

Self-tanners will tan any skin surface or hair.  So, be careful with it around the plams of your hands and your nails.  Always wear gloves when applying and use a sponge applicator if possible.  For ease of application, buy a lotion with a dark guide.  The guide will aid getting it on evenly.  Gels with oil are reasonably easy to get applied evenly because you can see where the oil is.  The problem with the gel type with oil is that the oil dries slowly.  Lotions dry much faster.  Guides can stain clothing, so be careful.   Do not swim, shower or sweat within 4-7 hours of application.  This can wash off parts of the DHA and cause splotchy or uneven color.  Wait until the color develops before doing swimming or other activities that make you sweat.

If you choose to go the route of a drug store lotion, look for reviews on the Internet first.  People who like a product will usually recommend it.  Amazon is a good place to get reasonably honest reviews of products. To get self-tanner off your palms, fingernails or cuticles, use a cotton swab and some bleach.  The bleach will lighten the self-tanner and make it far less noticeable.


Finally, expect to spend between 1-3 hours prepping, applying and waiting to dry.  Then, 4-6 hours before color begins to develop.   So, this is not a fast process by any stretch.  Be sure to fully exfoliate before you apply a self-tanner (whether from a bottle or in a salon).   You should moisturize daily to keep the skin moist and preserve the look of the tan.  There’s little you can do to mask the developer odor, so just try to keep yourself from getting wet (when it smells the worst).

Finally, I would like to point out the following possible health issues with self-tanner chemicals:

  1. A DHA tan does not protect you from UV.  Do not use it thinking that you won’t get burned outdoors.  In fact, DHA offers no UV protection at all.  So, if you must be outdoors with your DHA tan, apply sunscreen to fully protect your skin from a burn.
  2. DHA has no long term toxicity studies for its use on the skin.  It is a possibility that DHA leeches into the bloodstream on application.  So, applying DHA may not be healthy to your skin or body… which may take years before it’s ultimately linked to any injury.
  3. Aerosolized DHA in spray tanning booths will be inhaled.  You should be cautious of inhaling aerosolized DHA when using a spray tanning system.  Inhaling DHA into the lungs has not been tested for possible health issues.
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