The winter solution: Sunless tanners

There’s one known carcinogen none of us can avoid: Solar radiation.

Our sun isn’t a big ball of fire; it’s a huge nuclear fusion reactor. And so sunburn isn’t a thermal burn, like you get from standing too near fire. It’s a radiation burn, so it’s more like standing too near Chernobyl.

Radiation damages DNA, the stuff that tells your skin cells how to properly make new skin cells. DNA damage speeds the journey to saggy, wrinkled skin, and it can cause injured cells to run amok and transform into cancer.

Isn’t tanning safer than burning?

The redness and pain of sunburn is an inflammatory response, part of a desperate attempt to repair radiation damage. Tanning isn’t benign either: Exposure to solar radiation causes skin cells to crank out melanin, a brown pigment that works like an umbrella to shield underlying cells from further DNA damage. No matter how you try to spin it, tanned skin is damaged skin.

Perversely, even though tanning is an indication of radiation injury that will age skin prematurely and possibly cause cancer, to our eyes it is attractive and healthy-looking, and we seek it out.

Fortunately, there are ways to achieve that golden sunkissed glow without the DNA damage: Sunless tanners, also known as self-tanners.

What are sunless tanners?

The sun
Not a ball of fire.

Sunless tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and/or erythrulose, both sugars derived from plants. Doesn’t matter whether you apply your sunless tanning lotion at home or go to a salon to have it sprayed on — it’s all the same stuff and it all works the same way.

The sugars in sunless tanners react with amino acids in the stratum corneum, the outer layer of skin. The browning of your skin comes courtesy of the Maillard reaction — the same chemical process that turn bread and cinnamon rolls and other yummy things brown when they’re done baking.

This part is a little less appetizing: Your stratum corneum is composed of dead skin cells. All the skin you touch, scrub and moisturize is part of a nice, crusty layer of dead cells that protect the more delicate living cells underneath (you know, the ones you damage when you tan).

So the good news is sunless tanners have no lasting effect, because they only react with dead skin cells. And the bad news is sunless tanners have no lasting effect, because as you shed those cells the brown color goes with them.

Make your own sunless tanner

DIY sunless tanners apply pigment on top of the skin rather than reacting with the skin. Pigment ingredients are mixed with lotion and smoothed on, or mixed with water and sprayed on.

Before using a sunless tanner of any kind you should always exfoliate well. There’s no point in applying color to skin cells that are about to join the dust bunnies under your sofa; a good scrub gets you down to cells that will stick around for about 10 days.

Lotion tanners To a mild, white lotion add one or more of the following:

  • 100% pure cocoa powder (will wash off with next shower)
  • strong tea (cooled)
  • strong coffee (cooled)

Spray tanners Fill a clean spray bottle with any of the following. Reapply each day until you get the color you want.

  • strong tea (cooled)
  • strong coffee (cooled)
  • carrots — cover 1 part fresh unpeeled carrots and 2 parts brown sugar with water; simmer for 3 hours and allow to cool.

A couple of notes

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is not the same as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential nutrient that is available in supplement form. Cosmetic DHA is not approved for consumption, and dietary DHA does not affect skin color.

Sunless tanners are not sunscreens and do not offer protection from solar radiation. In fact, some studies have found that tanners actually increased sensitivity to UV rays. Always use a sunscreen when spending time outdoors!

More information

NEW! Commonsense Suggestions (Amazon store — shop for sunless tanners and support us, too!)

The chemistry of fake tan (Compound Interest)

How to make a homemade tanning lotion

Dihydroxyacetone (Wikipedia)

Erythrulose (Wikipedia)

Sunless tanners and bronzers (FDA)

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