top of page

Self Tanners | Step-by-step guide for sunless tanners

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Self-tanners, or sunless tanners, provide pigmentation without the need for UV exposure. Self-tanners contain dihydroxyacetone to add pigment to the skin. Read more...



self tanner

Photo: Wix

Disclaimer: This page contains an affiliate link to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through this link.

What is a self-tanner?

Self-tanners, or sunless tanners, provide pigmentation without the need for UV exposure. Self-tanners contain dihydroxyacetone to add pigment to the skin.

What is dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and how does it work?

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is FDA-approved as an ingredient in these products. Prior to its use as a tanner, DHA was a sugar substitute. When it came into contact with the skin, it was found to leave a pigment behind which triggered interest in using it as a sunless tanner. DHA works by interacting with amino acids in the skin to form a brown-pigmented complex in the superficial layers of the skin. This reaction occurs within an hour of use and can continue to pigment for about 24 hours.

How long does the tan last from a self-tanner?

The color lasts for about a week with the intensity of the color determined by the concentration of DHA used. Most products come as lotions or creams and have a DHA concentration of 3% to 5% however the range can be 1% to 15%.

Why are self-tanners popular?

Around the time when the risks of UV exposure were becoming more known along with some skin types simply unable to pigment easily in the sun, self-tanners gained in popularity in the 1980s and onward. They have evolved over the years as formulations have improved.

Sunless tanners have gained in popularity simply because they are considered a safer alternative to UV exposure for offering a tan without the risks of skin cancer and chronic UV damage.

Video: Techei

What should you look for when shopping for a self-tanner product?

The real challenge in finding the right product is that companies do not have to disclose the actual percentage of DHA in their product. DHA is not considered an active ingredient in that it does not change the structure or function of the skin. Sunless tanners are considered cosmetic products. Most people find the challenges faced by sunless tanners are the intensity of the pigment, the uniformity of pigment distribution, and the risk of allergic reactions and skin irritation. Choose a product that has an ease of application to allow for it to be uniformly distributed on the skin. Lotions or creams tend to do well. Consider product reviews to understand the intensity of the pigment offered by different products.

What are some do's and don'ts to guide when using self-tanner?

When shopping for a self-tanner, consider your starting point. If you do not tend to tan easily and find that your skin has little pigment, start with lighter shades or hues. Get a sense of how they work and how much pigment your skin receives. Starting with darker shades or really bronzed looks will look unnatural and take on an orangey look.

What is a step-by-step guide to applying self-tanner?

The process for applying a self-tanner starts the day before you intend to use it.

  • Avoid shaving 24 hours before applying a self-tanner.

  • Exfoliate your skin the day before using a self-tanner to avoid irritating the skin. Exfoliating the skin will reduce the tendency for self-tanners to accumulate in dead skin cells or dry skin on the surface.

  • Apply a moisturizer the night before your self-tanner.

By taking these steps the day before applying your product, the tendency for the product to accumulate residues from other products or dry skin on the surface will be lessened. This allows the product to be applied evenly across the skin.

To apply your self-tanner, consider the following:

  • Some products come with a mitt however using gloves, nitrile in particular, is a bit of a learning curve to avoid uneven distribution of the product. It is ok to use your hands but recognize that the thicker the skin, the darker the pigment. Palms will tend to turn orange pretty fast. Wash your hands with soap and water after each area.

  • Think of your skin in sections with joints separating the sections. Apply the product to these open areas of skin that are easier to work with: forearms, upper arms, calves, thighs, and tops of hands and feet.

  • After applying the product to these areas, blend the areas of the skin that “crease” such as ankles, elbows, and knees next. These areas run a risk of accumulating too much product that can accentuate the appearance of the pigmentation. For these areas, after applying a thin layer of self-tanner and rubbing in, apply a moisturizer on top of the tanner to slightly dilute the product. This will help with blending and avoid accentuating these areas.

  • Try to avoid exercising or sweating excessively for 3-4 hours after applying the product.

  • Most importantly, WEAR SUNSCREEN when in the sun!! Self-tanners are no substitute for sun protection.

How often is ideal for applying self-tanner?

Once you have applied your sunless tanner, the next day you will see how much pigment the product imparted on your skin. If you are happy with the color, reapply every 5 to 7 days. If you want more color, reapply daily until you are pleased, then drop to every 5 to 7 days for maintenance.

self tanner


Get in the know!

Join our email list and get access to specials deals exclusive to our subscribers.

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page