Why I Never Ever Use a Self-Tanner

Beauty, Skin Care

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

FutureDerm Diagram How Self-Tanner 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).

This results in a darker skin color, which fades over time due to the skin shedding itself every 35-45 days (Danish Ministry of the EnvironmentAmerican Journal of Clinical Dermatology).

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.

Bottom Line

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.

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  • Chelsea

    I got supposedly “all-natural” airbrush tans for about 6 months. The tanner’s main ingredient was DHA. The result was 6 months to 1 year of hormone imbalance, huge doctor bills, and feeling totally ill. Please do NOT use tanners with DHA!! Several years after that whole awful fiasco, I tried Jergen’s Natural Glow, thinking maybe it wouldn’t have the same affect. I started feeling ill within a week of using it. DHA has horrible side-effects if you research it thoroughly. I’m exceptionally pale, and would love to tan, but it’s just not worth it!

  • What are the reliable self-tanners made without DHA? I really like airbrush spray tans and make use of Beautisol Self Tanner at home… however it has DHA. and I don’t know basically could always adhere to the actual 1-2 days beforehand rule!

  • GoodResearch

    Wow. overkill on hating DHA sunless tanners.
    EU consumer protection has found them NOT to be any sort of lung cancer risk inhaled or not.

  • Joanna

    Hi Nicki,

    what about Vita Liberata brand? Would it be harmful to the skin as well?

  • Harmony888@yahoo.com

    KARDASHIAN GLOW NATURAL BRONZER IS DHA AND nERYTHRULOSE FREE, about $100 a bottle. So happy to find me I t. Lavera and a bunch of so called all natural DHA FREE products contain DHA and para ends, so annoying. Can’t wait cause I break out in major hives from the para bens and DHA!

  • Kim

    I’m shocked this title hasn’t gotten more attention even in mainstream news considering the prevalence of self tanner use. I try to stay up to date on skincare issues and was blown away after reading this post. Many prominent skincare sites such as paulas choice hasn’t done one post on this issue that I can find. And even come out with more products that have high levels of DHA while promoting their safety opposed to sun exposure for tanning – example is the paulas choice new self tanning concentrate which I planned to buy after using up my claims concentrate tho I won’t know after reading this highly informative post. I did a long search on DHA free self tanners and only could find a couple that seem to be DHA free. Would love a follow up post on alternatives such as DHA free melvita and beautylab DHA FREE tanner- at least they claim to be DHA free tho others have claimed such and found out to be not true. Oddly Kardashian has a DHA free supposedly self tanner that sells on amazon for around $40 Perhaps an ingredient review of those claiming to be DHA free for those of us who are truly trying all we can do to protect our skin!

  • Pallas

    Just saw that Melvita’s selftanner contains Erythrulose which, like DHA, reacts with the amino acids in the proteins of the first layers of skin (the stratum corneum and epidermis). One of the pathways involves free radicals at one of the steps of the Maillard reaction,[4][5] distantly related to the browning effect when a cut apple slice is exposed to oxygen.

    So apparently we shouldn’t use selftanners at all!!
    (what a shame though…)

  • Scharieh

    There is a self-tanner without DHA called “Prosun” by the German brand Melvita! It works by using erythrulose only.

  • she-alex

    There actually is a DHA-free tanner. It’s from the French company Melvita. You can get them in Canada but I don’t know about the States. http://ca.melvita.com/prosun-self-tanning-gel-cream,25,1,8766,81581.htm

  • Jessica


    Are there any reliable self-tanners made without DHA? I love airbrush spray tans and use Beautisol Self Tanner at home… but it has DHA. and I don’t know if I could always adhere to the 1-2 days beforehand rule!


  • Anna

    I’m assuming that “never ever” doesnt apply if:
    -you are applying sunless tanner and then staying indoors all day
    -you are not going in the sun until >24 hour application and presumably have also washed your skin.

    I’m way too terrified of looking like Jwoww to use these things on my face, but the state of my legs means I’m taking my first foray into the world of DHA so as not to frighten people. Since I have a lab-office job and fieldwork means covering up in warm clothes, I’m assuming I can ignore the UV/DHA interaction advice – yes? Could you be clearer on whether DHA in the near-complete absence of UV is a bad thing?

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