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Tan in a bottle: The sunless alternative

Brightly colored tubes of sunscreen.

Self-tanning products are one way to tan your skin without exposing it to the sun's harmful rays.

If you're concerned about the effects of sun exposure, avoiding the sun—or slathering on the sunscreen—may leave you feeling a little pale. But several alternatives, including sunless tanning lotions and bronzers, can bring some color to your skin without the worry of skin damage. Here's a look at how these products work and why you might want to consider them if you're interested in a bronzed look.

Why choose a sunless tanning method?

The sun imparts rays that can harm your skin. These ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause your skin to burn. Overexposure to UV rays can also lead to freckles, wrinkles and, more seriously, skin cancer. Sunless tanning products are a safe alternative, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Note: Tanning beds, although technically sunless, emit the same ultraviolet rays that can cause wrinkling and skin cancer and should be avoided.

What types of sunless tanning products are available?

There are a variety of products, including sunless tanners such as lotions and creams that you can rub into your skin. Some salons and tanning boutiques offer spray tanning booths where you can have a sunless tanner sprayed over your entire body.

There are also more temporary bronzers such as tinted moisturizers, as well as bronzing powders that can be brushed on.

How do they work? Do they create a natural-looking tan?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the active ingredient in sunless tanners, dihydroxyacetone, interacts with dead cells on the surface of the skin to create a color that may appear orange to tan. It does not wash off but fades slowly.

Are these products safe?

Sunless tanning products are a safe alternative to sun exposure, according to the AAD. Some people have reported developing a rash after use. And (mostly in the case of spray tanning booths) some people have experienced coughing, dizziness and fainting. If you are interested in getting your tan via a spray tanning booth, remember:

  • Make sure your eyes and the area around them are protected from the spray.
  • Any part of the body that is covered by a mucus membrane (such as the lips) needs to be protected from the spray.
  • Make sure you are provided with protection to ensure that you don't inhale or accidentally swallow any of the spray.

What about tanning pills?

Tanning pills should be avoided. They contain large doses of color additives, each similar to the substance that gives carrots their color, that collect in the skin when ingested. These additives are approved only for use in food, and in small amounts. They are not considered safe in the amounts needed to impart a sunless tan. No tanning pills have been approved by FDA.

Such large doses of these substances may cause liver, skin and eye problems, according to the American Cancer Society.

Can sunless tanners help protect your skin from sunburn or sun damage?

Sunless tanners alone don't protect your skin. But some sunless tanning products may also contain sunscreen. Read the label to see if there is an SPF (sun protection factor) listed. If it isn't at least SPF 30, you will need to use a separate sunscreen to protect your skin.

Reviewed 2/9/2024

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