Concerns about the sun's intensity have caused many consumers to turn to sunless-tanning products. These products, which promise to supply users with a safe, natural-looking faux tan, are available in many preparations. Products include lotions, gels, foams, sprays and towelettes in professional and do-it-yourself formulas. All work in essentially the same way: staining the outermost surface of the skin with dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and erythrulose, both of which are safe (though smelly) dyeing ingredients.
DHA is a derivative of sugar that reacts with dead skin cells, coloring the surface area of the skin; all sunless tanners rely on it to bronze skin. This helps explain the life cycle of the sunless tan: It will not wash or rub off but it begins to fade as dead skin cells slough off -- approximately four to six days after application.
In addition to different consistencies, consumers also have a choice between instant and gradual self tanners. Gradual self tanners contain lower-strength ingredients to provide a more gradual, streak-free tan over time (typically a week), while instant self tanners offer more rapid results (typically six hours for a full tan). However, many individuals say they are turned off by the more dramatic results. In fact, several reviewers say the tans of instant products are less likely to turn out as even as those created with a gradual self tanner.
Self-tanning products are fairly straightforward -- they all work with the same active ingredient applied in different ways. Lotions and gel tanning formulas are easy to apply but take the longest to dry. Foams and self-tanning sprays dry faster but many users say they are more difficult to apply evenly. Tanning wipes, which are towelettes doused in tanning solution, are best for spot treatments (like sprucing up tan lines) but not full-body applications because of their tendency to cause streaking.
Professional spray tans, another popular option often administered at spas and tanning salons, are available in two forms: airbrush and booth-spray tans. Airbrush tans are applied by professional technicians who use handheld sprayers to apply tanning solution evenly over the body. Booth spray tans, on the other hand, are automated. Consumers step into a booth where tanning solution is sprayed over their entire body by a moving shower jet, ensuring that even the most hard-to-reach spots are covered.
Sunless tanners do have their drawbacks. Many (particularly fair-skinned individuals) frequently report problems correctly matching their skin tone. Complaints about uneven coverage, complicated application, long drying times and pungent chemical odors are also common. Additionally, many products on the market do not contain sunscreen and DHA offers no protection from the sun's damaging rays. If you're going to be outside often, experts suggest topping any sunless tanner with a sunscreen (SPF 15 or greater) for extra protection.
We cannot discuss sunless tanners without mentioning the smell. All sunless-tanning lotions, creams and sprays have a distinct odor associated with them, caused by DHA. These scents fade, however, as the resulting tan develops. Some people find the smell intolerable, one reason why experts recommend sniff-testing self tanners prior to purchase. Beyond this, the ultimate differences lie in application and tan time.
Although many women's magazines like Allure, Health, InStyle and Self are full of suggestions for sunless tanners, the most objective evaluations come from Beautypedia.com. At this consumer watchdog website, creator and editor Paula Begoun uses years of scientific research and product testing to compare the ingredients and claims of hundreds of beauty products, including several sunless tanners. ConsumerReports.org last tested sunless tanners in June 2007. Six self-tanning products were tested on 14 panelists who assessed scent, color and ease of use. Although their report is dated, most of the tested tanning lotions and sprays are still available.
We found an informal test done by Woman's Day magazine in which 10 self tanners are ranked for color, streaking, scent and effectiveness. Each tanning lotion or spray was tested on only one person, however, and results can vary greatly from one person to the next. About.com has some picks for self tanners, but we found no less than four different, unrelated and dated top-five lists on the site with no agreement between the articles, which are all written by different people. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
Lastly, we found a lot of contradiction among user reviews at MakeupAlley.com, TotalBeauty.com and Drugstore.com. Although these sources are certainly helpful in gauging real-world experience with sunless-tanning products, users' experiences vary greatly based on natural skin tone and condition as well as how the product is applied. Experts say it may take some trial and error to find the right self tanner and shade for you. Because of this, experts say it's important to test tanners on an inconspicuous area to ensure good color tone and to avoid any unnecessary irritation. Although DHA is not known to be particularly irritating, those with sensitive skin may react differently to it, as well as to other ingredients used in a product's base.