That’s never ever, like Taylor Swift would say. Never ever.
Most self-tanners work by using dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the main ingredient. Unfortunately, according to the respected journal Spectrochimica Acta, DHA in sunless tanners can increase free radicals by 180% upon getting sun exposure in the first 24 hours after application. Free radicals are responsible for oxidative damage within the skin as well as the rest of the body, and can result in lasting DNA damage.
One way to protect yourself when applying a sunless tanner with DHA is be sure that you apply an antioxidant serum, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods, and apply the tanner no later than 1-2 days before you go to the beach or any other location where you will be getting excessive sun exposure. Be sure you keep up with your application of antioxidant serums and sunscreen throughout the day, particularly in the first few days after application.
Another way to protect yourself while applying a self-tanner is to avoid them — or any other product with DHA — altogether. DHA is the enemy here, but similar effects can be obtained by using a bronzer or slightly darker foundation. I absolutely refuse to use DHA, because I am religious about using antioxidant-rich products. Why negate the effects by bombarding my skin with free radicals?!
How DHA Works
More commonly known as DHA, dihydroxyacetone is a common ingredient in self-tanners. DHA is a carbohydrate that reacts with non-functional surface skin proteins and browns them. After topically applying DHA, the 3-carbon sugar DHA specifically reacts with amino acids and amino groups to produce melanoids (brown pigments) on the stratum corneum (outermost layer of skin).
Unfortunately, the reaction has been shown to increase free radicals within the skin.
Are There Any Good Self-Tanners Without DHA?
Being a person who talks all the time about skin care, I’m on the fair side. (Gotta live what you preach!) That said, I haven’t been able to find any self-tanners without DHA. Even quality brands that tout being all-natural and chemical-free, like the German Lavera or Seattle’s True Natural, have products that contain DHA. It seems nearly impossible to get a DHA-free product.
Even brands that claim you are getting tan in part from erythrulose, a natural ingredient found in raspberries, also contain DHA as one of the ingredients. I could not find a single product with erythrulose that did not also contain DHA. This includes brands like St. Tropez, Sun Laboratories, and FakeBake.
You’ll never catch me using a self-tanner with DHA — the free radicals simply aren’t worth it to me. At the same time, if you do choose to use a self-tanner, use a DHA-containing self-tanner with antioxidant serum and religious use of sunscreen, and make sure you apply no sooner than 1-2 days beforehand, as you’ll be producing ample free radicals upon sun exposure 1-2 days after applying.