We all want to have that golden tan. In our culture, it is seen as a sign of being healthy, sexy and attractive.
As a board certified dermatologist, I offer the following recommendations as the safe way to acquire a glowing tan – year-round – without exposing your skin to carcinogenic ultraviolet radiation.
How self-tanning products work
Many self-tanning and bronzer products are sold over the counter, and they all contain either dihydroxyacetone (DHA) or erythrulose. These ingredients are short carbon chain sugar moieties that bind to the amino acids in the top layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum, the “dead skin layer.”
DHA does not penetrate beyond the stratum corneum, and its browning effect is nontoxic. When DHA binds to the proteins on the skin surface, a color reaction occurs, depending on the DHA concentration of the product applied and the composition of the amino acids in an individual’s skin. Over-the-counter products typically contain 3-5 percent DHA and professional products up to 15 percent.
Bronzers containing a lower concentration of DHA are easier to use but require multiple applications to achieve the desired color depth. Higher DHA concentration self-tanners only require one application to produce a dark tan but are more prone to streaking, unevenness or requiring color adjustment.
The tan takes two to four hours to appear and continues to darken for 24 to 72 hours, depending on the formulation used.
Once the coloration effect has appeared, the tan will not sweat or wash off. It will fade gradually over three to 10 days via the skin’s normal exfoliation process. Exfoliation, prolonged water submersion or heavy sweating can lighten the tan.
Finding the right product
Sunless tanners are formulated into sprays, lotions, gels, mousses and cosmetic wipes. If you have dry skin, a lotion may be preferable to a gel or spray. If you are hairy, you probably would prefer a spray or gel.
Applying the tanning product using a wipe may minimize the product, causing your palms to turn brown. None of the self-tanning products are approved for use on the face. The eye, mouth and nose areas especially should be avoided.
Some sunscreens contain self-tanners, but the tan does not last as long. The skin browning of a sunless tan provides minimal if any sun protection (SPF 3) and should not be relied on as photoprotection against the sun’s harmful UV radiation, which can contribute to skin cancers, premature aging, wrinkles, increased blood vessel dilation (broken capillaries) and brown spots.
You should always apply a broad spectrum UVA-UVB sunscreen with an excellent antioxidant lotion underneath for maximal protection.
Applying skin bronzers
Follow the steps below for a safe tan.
1. Before using a tanning product, wash your skin and use a body exfoliating scrub to remove excess dead skin cells. Pay special attention to exfoliating areas with thick skin, such as knees, elbows, heels and ankles.
If you have little warty growths such as seborrheic keratoses on your skin, these areas will preferentially absorb more of the tanning product and become a darker color compared to the rest of your skin. This is not an attractive look. The warty growths will be highlighted and not your lovely tan. It is a good idea to have a dermatologist remove these growths prior to applying bronzers.
2. Shave your legs.
3. Apply a moisturizer so that the tanning product will bind more evenly to the skin.
4. Wear vinyl or latex gloves to prevent staining your hands. Alternatively, repeatedly wash your hands with soap and water after finishing each application of a body area.
5. Apply the product in a circular motion until it is completely absorbed. Be systematic in your application. Start with the tops of feet and work your way up to avoid colored creases on your stomach from bending over.
6. The knees, elbows, knuckles, heels and ankles tend to absorb more of sunless tanning products. Rub baby oil on knuckles, toes, nails, elbows, ankles and knees first before applying tanners. To dilute the tanning effect in those areas, gently rub them with a damp towel. Avoid applying tanning products to moles.
7. Wait 15 minutes before dressing. Wear loose clothing and avoid exercise for three hours to allow the product to set.
8. Apply bronzer to the back of one hand and rub it against the other hand. Remove any excess product by dabbing with a cosmetic sponge. Wipe cuticles and nails with a cotton swab dipped in baby oil to remove tanner.
9. Lightly dust talc-free baby powder on your body before dressing to reduce friction from clothing rubbing on your new tan, which can cause streaking. The powder will not interfere with the color.
10. Apply tanner at night and wear loose-fitting pajamas. When the sun rises, you will be ready to head outside with your golden tan.
11. Wait 10 hours before showering. Bathe with a moisturizing body wash. Avoid alkaline bar soaps, which will strip your color. You can also prolong your tan by coating your skin with baby oil 15 minutes before showering.
Covering up tanning mistakes
• You’re too dark: Rub the area with a thin layer of whitening toothpaste and rinse.
• Your palms are orange/brown: Rub a freshly cut lemon over your palms and rinse off after three to five minutes.
• You’re streaky: Lightly buff the areas with a damp washcloth or apply shimmery body makeup everywhere.
• You have orange warty bumps: See a dermatologist.
Remember, with tanning, practice makes perfect.
Dr. Patricia Wong is a dermatologist in private practice in Palo Alto. For more information, call 473-3173 or visit patriciawongmd.com.