Are the ingredients in self-tanners safe?

Find out how self-tanners work, and how you can apply them safely and effectively

Are the ingredients in self-tanners safe?

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2012

A few years ago, I flirted with self-tanning by going to a Mystic Tan spray tanning booth. Wearing a disposable cap, I stood in a little booth and rotated quickly while a nozzle sprayed a tanning solution all over my body for about two minutes. I learned the hard way that if you don’t turn at precisely the right second, the colour could be uneven.

This process has improved a lot, judging by  a Mystic Tan YouTube video; it states that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends protective eyewear, lip balm and nose filters. (Health Canada does not legislate these booths; it says sunless tanning is a safer alternative to tanning beds or the sun since the body is not exposed to harmful UV rays.) The cost is about $35 and the tan lasts about a week.

These days I prefer an esthetician to administer a light spray tan at a salon/spa, despite the price being higher (it starts at about $85). Having a little colour in summer just makes me feel good, but I don’t want it from the sun.

The other options? There are home spray-gun systems, but they cost hundreds of dollars. As for pills or those bizarre-sounding injectable tanning drugs, Health Canada has not approved any drugs for tanning purposes.

The sunless tanning method of choice for most people: creams, sprays and packages of pre-soaked sheets on the beauty shelves. The active ingredient and darkening agent in self-tanners is dihydroxy acetone (DHA), considered safe by Health Canada. Derived from beet or cane sugar, it reacts with the amino acids in the skin’s top layer. The self-tan takes effect in about four hours, and wears off when your outer layer of skin has naturally shed. The packaging typically doesn’t list the percentage of DHA, but generally, they contain three to five percent. One exception I found is NeoStrata Insta-Tan; its package states 6.5 percent DHA.

What about the gradual tanning creams, such as Jergens Natural Glow? The subtlety comes not from having less DHA, a company spokesperson says, but from combining DHA with the plant-based ingredient erythrulose.

Some people don’t like tanning creams’ scent, the result of a chemical reaction between the DHA and the skin. Manufacturers try to mask it, with varying success.

Self-tanners do take practice to apply. It is necessary to first exfoliate skin, but even then I find I don’t always get even-looking results.

So I asked U.K.’based Nichola Joss, a ‘skin finishing expert’ for St. Tropez, how to evenly apply a lotion to the legs and tops of feet.

The trick, she says, is to use a mitt’and, you guessed it, St. Tropez sells one for $8 (or try disposable latex or nitrile gloves from the drugstore). ‘Apply self-tanner to the mitt, then work up and around the leg using residue on the mitt to cover the tops of the feet, ankles and knees,’ says Joss. (To avoid staining nails, apply an oil-free moisturizer on them beforehand.)

Hope springs eternal. I’m going to give it a go.

This article was originally titled "Help me, Rhonda!" in the Summer 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!