How to Apply Sunless Tanners in 8 Steps

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When I opened the door to my exam room the other day and greeted my teenage patient, she said, “Hi,” and gave me a little wave. I noticed her palm was burnt orange.

“Been eating a lot of carrots lately?” I joked.

“Self-tanner,” she replied, deadpan.

“Right,” I said.

I proceeded to tell her that I was happy she was choosing sunless tanner over actual tanning, especially since melanoma is soaring in young adults and that using an indoor tanning device can increase your risk for developing melanoma by 74% compared to non-users.

The safest tan is no tan, but I know that many teens and adults like the look of tanned skin. So, the next best option is sunless tanners. The “tan” from unless tanners comes from dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a coloring agent that binds to proteins on the skin’s surface, making it appear tanned. While rumors swirl about the dangers of tanning aerosols, there is no clear evidence that DHA, when applied topically and used as directed, is dangerous to humans. DHA does not penetrate the skin like UV rays; therefore, it is a safe alternative to actual tanning. It’s also the only agent approved for use by the FDA.

Despite it’s safety, it’s still a good idea to use aerosol self-tanners in a well-ventilated area since the effects of inhalation are still unknown. Self-tanning wipes are easily portable, but can go on streaky, while gels can cause drying, making the skin feel tight. Creams and lotions are the easiest to apply and are most popular. Self-tanners should always be used in conjunction with broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.

Here’s how to apply sunless tanners in 8 steps without looking like a carrot:

1. Exfoliate skin with a dry washcloth to slough off dead skin cells and smooth out skin’s surface.

2. Apply moisturizer and allow it to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before applying your tanner. If your skin is at all greasy, gently dab it with a soft, dry cloth. Pay particular attention to elbows and knees, where the skin is thicker, as color deposited there can become more concentrated.

3. Wear latex gloves to avoid orange-stained palms like my patient’s. If you don’t like gloves, then apply Vaseline petroleum jelly on your fingernails and fingertips to avoid staining.

4. Apply in sections, such as legs, abdomen, back, arms, etc. It’ll reduce your chances of streaks and missed spots.

5. Blend well at joints including wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles for a natural look.

6. Dry and set. Wait 15 to 20 minutes for the tanner to set before getting dressed. Avoid sweating and washing for the next 3 hours.

7. Reapply as needed. Most sunless tanners last about 5 days. Be patient. It may take 2 to 3 applications to reach your desired color. Once you do, reapply about 3 times per week to maintain that shade.

8. Use sunscreen. Sunless tanners are NOT sun-protective. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 daily and re-apply every 4 hours, or more frequently, if sweating or playing water sports.

Do you have any questions about using self-tanners or any recommendations to share? Please let us know in the comment section below.

Photo credit: FCC, jaissus

4 thoughts on “How to Apply Sunless Tanners in 8 Steps

  1. Great tips, thanks for sharing. I like self-tanners, but it takes time to find the product that is best for you.

  2. This sounds like great advice! I shy away from self-tanners because I’m afraid I might end up looking like an orange, but I might try it now, Thanks for sharing!

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