After hearing the umpteenth report on skin cancer related to sun exposure,
people have finally decided to enter the fake bronze age.
A decade ago, consumers might have been out to find the deepest, darkest
tanning oil to marinate their skin with, but now they settle happily for a
natural pallor or a fake
tan in a bottle.
But self-tanners haven't had an easy road to acceptance, primarily since their
results in the past have been unnatural and streaky, and the products
themselves carried a rotten odour thanks to their main tanning ingredient,
DHA (dehydroxyacetone). That's changed a lot these days: the streaking is much
less of a problem, products are better absorbed by skin and stay put more,
colour looks more natural, and the smell - well, they're still working on that.
Debbie D'Aquino, executive director (product development treatment) at
Clinique, suggested that a lot of improvements have been made in formulating
the products. For example, she said,
"Better knowledge of ...
DHA. We adjust the pH to be more like skin (slightly acidic), we don't use oils
DHA to deteriorate, and we use other colour-enhancing materials (like sugars) to
give the most natural self-tan."
D'Aquino added that products today also spread more easily and evenly.
Other improvements include adding a tint to self-tanners like Estee Lauder's Go
Bronze line so you can see where you've applied the product.
Lancome and Christian Dior offer products that include AHA (alphahydroxy acid),
which is supposed to smooth and even out the skin surface. And some products
include sunscreen properties, like Clarins's self-tanners with
SPF 6 or 15.
As for smell, said Dr. Sylvianne Schnebert, a clinical researcher with
"Investigations have been done to neutralize the bad smell of the degradation
product result from the reaction of
DHA and amino acids." Masking the unpleasant odour is still one way to deal with it. Dior, for
example, has scented its Bronze self-tanning line with amber-vanilla, while The
Body Shop has turned to watermelon.
Bells and whistles aside, self-tanning products all work the same way, relying
DHA to chemically interact with skin to develop the tan colour.
"DHA is a small, sugar-type molecule which ... reacts with amino acids and the
amino groups of the skin keratin, forming complex coloured compounds," Schnebert explained.
"These brown compounds are called melanoidins and are responsible for the
artificial hue of the skin."
Unfortunately, Schnebert added, melanoidins
aren't the same thing as melanin which is the tan skin produces in response to
real sun exposure.
"The similarity of a
DHA tan and a natural tan sometimes causes problems.
"People expect a tan to provide UV protection. However, unlike the melanin
DHA-derived polymers do not absorb significant amounts of UV light, and therefore,
cannot protect against UVB (burning rays) radiation," she said. D'Aquino suggested waiting at least 15 minutes after applying your
self-tanner, then putting on a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher before
When using self-tanners, people should understand that applying the same
product in the exact same way will produce different shade from one person to
the next, ranging from a faint gold to a ruddy brown. That's because a fake
tan is affected by a few factors, said Schnebert, including skin thickness at
the outermost layer (the stratum corneum or horny layer), the skin's pH levels,
and how highly concentrated amino acids are in one's skin.
"When the stratum is very thick, as at the elbows, the tan is intense. When the
horny layer is thin, such as the face, the tan is less intense, said Schnebert.
"An alkaline pH turns the tan orange, whereas a slightly acid pH reduces colour
problems." Finally, since
DHA reacts with skin's amino acids, varying levels among individuals will affect
the colour results.
Also, consider that results are only as good as the skin receiving the
self-tanners. Manufacturers generally suggest that you apply a
DHA product to freshly exfoliated skin, so use a gentle body scrub or loofah in
Application technique is another important aspect, said D'Aquino, so she
recommended the following:
"Smooth your self-tan formula over skin, a little at a time. Blend, using
horizontal strokes to prevent gaps."