Sunless tanning: What you need to know

Sunless tanning is a practical alternative to sunbathing. Find out how sunless tanning products work, including possible risks and how to get the best results.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Don't want to expose your skin to the sun's damaging rays, but still want that sun-kissed glow? Consider sunless tanning products. Understand how these 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, creams and sprays you apply to your skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available.

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

Most sunless tanning products don't contain sunscreen. If a product contains 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 UV rays. If you spend time outdoors, sunscreen remains essential.

What about sunless tanning pills?

Sunless tanning pills, which typically contain the color additive canthaxanthin, aren't safe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage and impaired vision.

May 12, 2016 See more In-depth