While men and women continue to seek a perfect summer tan, the dangers of UV exposure and use of tanning beds are causing many tanners to find a safer alternative. Sunless tanning, also known as self-tanning, uses chemical processes to achieve a perfect summer glow without the harmful side effects of prolonged sun exposure. According to DermNet NZ, dihydroxyacetone was the most popular sunless tanning option in 2009.


How It Works

Dihydroxyacetone is a colorless three-carbon sugar that causes a chemical reaction resulting in a tan. When dihydroxyacetone is applied to the skin, it reacts with protein molecules on the outermost layer of the epidemis–the stratum corneum. Depending on the type of protein it interacts with, dihydroxyacetone may cause a change in pigment from yellow to dark brown. This chemical process darkens the skin to resemble a suntan. Dihydroxyacetone generally does not damage the skin because it stays on the uppermost layer of the epidermis.

When Will I See Results?

It takes time for the chemical reaction between dihydroxyacetone and protein molecules in the skin to take place. Usually, noticeable tanning will begin one to two hours after applying a product containing dihydroxyaceton. Depending on the strength of the formula, tanning may continue for several more days. Like a suntan, sunless tanning methods fade after several days. This occurs because the outermost layer of skin is sloughed off to make way for new cells. Because of this fading process, dihydroxyacetone should be reapplied weekly to maintain a continuous tanned shade.

Benefits of Sunless Tanning

Tanning in the sun or in tanning beds can cause extensive skin damage, making sunless tanning options much safer alternatives. Forms of tanning involving UV rays expose you to the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. Skin also ages prematurely, causing young and middle-aged adults to show greater wrinkling and sun spots than those who use sunless tanning methods. Using dihydroxyacetone prevents these harmful side effects and maintains skin health and beauty.

Side Effects of Dihydroxyacetone

Because dihydroxyacetone stays on the outermost layer of the skin, side effects are minimal. First-time users often get undesirable staining on their hands or other body parts, and tanning effects may be uneven. These side effects can be avoided by exfoliating skin before use of dihydroxyacetone, applying the product evenly and washing hands immediately after use to avoid unwanted staining.

More serious side effects have been reported in a small minority of dihydroxyacetone users. Some people may be allergic to dihydroxyacetone, resulting in contact dermatitis. If you develop itchy skin, peeling or redness after application of dihydroxyacetone, discontinue use and the affected area will clear up within a few days. If irritation persists, contact your dermatologist.

Alternative Sunless Tanning Options

There are several alternative products that achieve a sunless tan, although each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Bronzers come in powder, spray and cream form and provide a sun-kissed look without risking damaging exposure. However, bronzers do not react chemically with skin to change its color, so they are easily washed away. Tanning pills are available in some countries but are banned in the United States because of their dangerous side effects. Research has linked these pills to liver damage and other health risks. The downsides of these alternative sunless tanning methods contributes to dihydroxyacetone’s popularity among tanners who want a healthy glow without damaging side effects.