• Elisabet Salmerón, science journalist

    Fake tanning: bronzed skin, no cancer risk

    28 Mar Fake tanning: bronzed skin, no cancer risk




    Mayo Clinic

    Fake tanning products are the perfect solution for people who like to have a bronzed skin all year round, yet want to reduce the negative effects of solar radiation and prevent skin cancer. Here we consider the advantages and disadvantages.


    Current sunless tanning products have come a long way since the first such products were launched on the market in the 1960s. Such products were not entirely successful, however, due to the uneven and orangeish tan they produced. Current tanning products not only give a more natural, long-lasting colour, they cater for all tastes and skin types. They come in different forms (cream, gel, spray, wipe, etc) and often offer additional benefits (as moisturizers, sunscreens, anti-wrinkle products, etc).

    Besides being fashionable the whole year round, sporting a nice tan without having to sunbathe in real or artificial light deals with the problem of preventing skin cancer. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts (USA) achieved a substantial reduction in sunbathing time by promoting sunless tanning as an alternative to exposure to artificial or solar ultraviolet radiation.


    100% natural tanning

    Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the main active ingredient in sunless tanning products, is extracted from sugar cane. DHA reacts with keratin, the basic protein in the outermost layer of the epidermis (stratum corneum), to produce melanoidins, the brown molecules responsible for bronzing the skin. The fact that DHA does not interact with melanin limits adverse reactions, especially allergies; furthermore, DHA does not interfere with the skin's natural defences.


    How to use fake tans

    For best results, the skin should be exfoliated beforehand to remove dead cells, as a better quality, longer-lasting tan is achieved on new, clean and hydrated skin. The tan begins to appear shortly after the first application and intensifies in the following 24 hours. It is preferable to avoid showering and perspiring for at least the first eight hours.

    The fake tan should suit your skin type (light, medium or dark) and should contain a maximum of 5% to 9% of DHA (higher concentrations will dry out the skin). The tan will gradually disappear as the dead, DHA-stained skin cells are shed and the skin is renewed. Experts recommend weekly application for a more permanent tan.


    Beware of the sun!

    Under no circumstances does a fake tan protect the skin from the negative effects of the sun. A German study demonstrated that, when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, DHA-treated skins released 180% more free radicals than untreated skins, greatly accelerating the photo-ageing process.

    The few fake tanning products on the market that are also sunscreens provide low-level protection (factor 3 or 4). Experts therefore advise users of DHA-based products to simultaneously apply a powerful sunscreen to avoid the risks of skin ageing and cancer.

    In short, if proper precautions are taken, DHA-based sunless tanning products can have a positive impact on people’s health and skincare by enabling them to sport an even tan throughout the year without running the risks of sun exposure.


    (We have deliberately chosen not to refer in this article to tanning pills based on canthaxanthin or other colourants, as their safety is questioned by EU and US food safety agencies).