The Safest Way to that Sun-Kissed Look
Being a newbie to southern California from upstate New York, I am often in awe of the golden tans that surround me! As a light-haired, light-eyed, fair-skinned girl, I have never been able to spend even a small amount of time in the sun without risking a sunburn. I admit that I do envy my friends with darker complexions who seem to tan so easily! This has led me to seek out an alternative way to get a “tan” without compromising the health of my skin, not to mention predisposing me to early signs of aging.
Skin cancer is a major public health concern, with incidences on the rise. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) estimates that 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. There are different kinds of skin cancer, including malignant melanoma, which is strongly associated with the use of ultraviolet (UV) tanning, both indoor and outdoors. The AAD also has estimated that by this year, 1 in 50 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime.
These are staggering statistics showing just how great our risk of developing skin cancer is. I’m sure most of us have known someone in our lives who has had skin cancer of some kind. Now more than ever, it is of utmost importance to find safer methods for those who desire a sun-kissed glow...
Using sunless tanner is the best way to achieve a tan without damaging your skin, yet so many Americans continue to frequent indoor tanning beds and expose themselves to the sun without proper protection. The severity of skin cancer has been brought to the mainstream media in recent years, being featured on social media and news programs nationally. So, why don’t more people just go sunless? Well, it’s true, sunless tanning can be cumbersome, smell funny, and come out uneven or too “orange.” However, by using the right product and using it correctly, you can avoid self-tanning mishaps AND avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful UV exposure!
How do sunless tanners work?
Most sunless tanning lotions on the market contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It is the only ingredient FDA-approved for sunless tanning, and has been around since the 1970s. When applied to the skin, it causes a chemical reaction with amino acids in the surface cells of the skin, producing a darkening effect. DHA only affects the outermost cells of the epidermis (stratum corneum), so it does not damage the skin. A “tan" produced by DHA will last until the dead skin cells rub off, usually 5-7 days, but repeat applications can be done every 1-4 days to extend the “tan.”
OK… is this stuff safe?
Most dermatologists consider sunless tanning much safer than obtaining a tan from the cancer-causing UV radiation that comes from the sun or tanning booths. There is no clear evidence that DHA is harmful to humans if applied topically and used as directed. The concentrations included in sunless tanning preparations are considered non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. I personally use sunless tanning products as a much safer alternative to traditional UV tanning, and I know many other health professionals that do as well.
The gray area is spray tanning. DHA is only FDA approved for external application which does NOT include eyes, lips, or mucous membranes! Therefore, the FDA has not been able to evaluate the safety of sunless tanning booths or spray tans because the industry has not submitted safety data to support this use to the agency for review and evaluation. They have not been ruled as unsafe; they cannot say for certain that inhaling the DHA mist is not harmful.
Which sunless tanner is right for me?
Just like acne medications, not all sunless tanners will work the same for everyone! Sunless tanners come in various consistencies such as lotions, sprays, mousses, and toilettes.
They also come in various shades from “light” to “deep.” It may take a little trial and error to find the formulation you like. It also depends on what application style you prefer. Some sunless tanners do also contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) for added exfoliative benefit. Alcohol based preparations are best for those with oily skin, while those containing moisturizers are best for those with dry skin. You can find sunless tanning products over the counter in drugstores by well-known brands, as well at department stores and cosmetic retailers.
Tips for a better sunless tan
- Cleanse and exfoliate before applying the product
apply moisturizer first… paying particular attention to knees, elbows and ankles, as the product tends to get “stuck” in these areas and cause unevenness of color
apply the product in thin, even layers; you can even utilize a glove or mitt to protect your hands
- Use a damp cloth to remove excess lotion from unwanted areas
- Wash hands thoroughly
- Wait at least 30 minutes before applying clothing
- Avoid wearing light colors after application! especially in the warmer weather, perspiration can cause running of color onto clothes
- Avoid showering or swimming for at least 1 hour after applying
- You can apply to your face, but do avoid the eyes and lip area
- Apply a small amount to your fingers, and apply to the perimeter of your face while working inwards
But, you need to remember…
- Sunless tanners do not replace sunscreen! Even the sunless tanners that do contain SPF typically are not applied liberally enough (or else you would turn orange!) to provide adequate sun protection. So remember to keep using that sunscreen!
- You can still burn! If you’re someone like me who is fair-skinned, having a sunless “golden glow” does not make you immune to the sun’s rays. You are still as susceptible to burning as you were before!
- Some sunless tanners can be comedogenic (or potentially acne-causing)! Which can be OK if you are primarily using sunless tanner on areas of your body not prone to breakout, such as your legs. If you are going to use it on the face or chest area and you are prone to acne, check out some non-comedogenic options for sunless tanners (such as Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanning)
- Don’t skip your mole check! Remember, if it looks funny, it’s better to have it evaluated by an in-person provider than to let it go! Currently, there are no standardized guidelines on routine screening for skin cancer. Do be aware that fair-skinned men and women over the age of 65, people with atypical moles, and people with over 50 moles are at the greatest risk for melanoma.
Laura Garrison, NP-BC
Laura Garrison is a board-certified nurse practitioner at PocketDerm, which enables patients to see a health care professional online for comprehensive acne treatment. Laura received her nursing degree from Binghamton University, completed her nurse practitioner degree at The Sage Colleges, and is currently based in San Diego, CA.. LinkedIn.
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