Mayo Clinic Health Library

Sunless tanning: What you need to know

Updated: 06-04-2013

Don't want to expose your skin to the sun's damaging rays, but still want that sun-kissed glow? Consider trying sunless tanning products. Start by understanding how sunless tanning products work — and the importance of applying them carefully and correctly.

How do sunless tanning products work?

Sunless tanning products, also called self-tanners, can give your skin a tanned look without exposing it to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Sunless tanning products are commonly sold as lotions and sprays you apply to your skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available at many salons, spas and tanning businesses.

The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is the color additive, dihydroxyacetone. When applied, dihydroxyacetone reacts with dead cells in the skin's surface to temporarily darken the skin. The coloring typically wears off after a few days.

Sunless tanning products might or might not contain sunscreen. If a product does contain sunscreen, it will only be effective for a couple of hours. The color produced by the sunless tanning product won't protect your skin from ultraviolet rays. If you spend time outdoors, sunscreen remains essential.

What about sunless tanning pills?

Sunless tanning pills, which typically contain the color additive canthaxanthin, are unsafe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage and impaired vision.

Is sunless tanning safe?

Topical sunless tanning products are generally considered safe alternatives to sunbathing, as long as they're used as directed.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved dihydroxyacetone for external application to the skin. However, the FDA hasn't approved the use of dihydroxyacetone for application to areas near the eyes, mouth or nose. If you're using a sunless tanning lotion, it's easy to avoid these areas. With spray tanning, this might be more difficult — since the product is usually applied to the whole body to ensure even color. Spray tanning might also cause you to inhale the product.

Further research is needed to determine the risks — if any — of this type of exposure. In the meantime, protect your eyes, mouth and nose when spray tanning and avoid inhaling the product. Be sure to wear goggles and nose plugs, and hold your breath while the spray is being applied.

What's the best way to apply a sunless tanning lotion?

For best results, follow the package directions carefully. In general:

  • Exfoliate first. Before using a sunless tanning product, wash your skin to remove excess dead skin cells. Spend a little extra time exfoliating areas with thick skin, such as your knees, elbows and ankles.
  • Apply in sections. Massage the product into your skin in a circular motion. Apply the tanner to your body in sections, such as your arms, legs and torso. Wash your hands with soap and water after each section to avoid discoloring your palms. Lightly extend the product from your ankles to your feet and from your wrists to your hands.
  • Wipe joint areas. The knees, elbows and ankles tend to absorb more of sunless tanning products. To dilute the tanning effect in these areas, gently rub them with a damp towel.
  • Take time to dry. Wait to dress at least 10 minutes. Wear loose clothing and avoid sweating for three hours.