Fake It, Don't Bake It
- Alexis Bigham
- Thursday, February 20th, 2014
by Farah K. Ahmed
Over the last two decades, public awareness of the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun and tanning beds has considerably grown. Programs such as The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Go With Your Own GlowTM campaign have also stressed the beauty of one’s natural skin color, and many celebrities have opted for and publicly expressed the value of untanned skin. Nonetheless, the desire for tanned skin persists, especially in teens and 20-somethings, and this appears to be reflected by soaring melanoma figures, now six times higher for young adults than they were 40 years ago. Fortunately, sunless tanners (aka self-tanners or UV-free tanners) have made significant advancements since the 1980s, when they were notorious for producing unrealistic color, not to mention orange-streaked palms. For those who recognize the dangers of UVR, but still want a golden glow, it pays to become acquainted with today’s much-improved sunless tanners and learn how they differ from UV tanning.
What Is a UV Tan?
Suntans, sunburns, and premature skin aging can all be caused by overexposure to cancer-causing ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA and UVB) rays. Both types of rays damage the skin cells’ DNA, prompting melanocytes (skin cells in the top layer of skin, the epidermis) to produce more melanin, the pigment that gives our eyes and skin their color.
UVA oxidizes the existing melanin, causing immediate pigment darkening. UVB causes inflammation, which releases new melanin to neighboring epidermal cells, and in about 72 hours, this leads to further tanning that lasts much longer than the UVA-triggered tanning. All of this melanin production signals that DNA damage has already occurred: it is a far from perfect attempt by the body to protect the skin from further damage. Nonetheless, the damage from repeated UV exposures keeps accumulating and can ultimately lead to skin cancer.
What Is a Sunless Tan?
With sunless tanning, no such damage occurs. The “tan” from most sunless tanners comes from the coloring agent dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple carbohydrate. DHA binds to the proteins on the skin’s surface, forming brownish melanin-like molecules called “melanoids” that make the skin appear tan. Unlike UV, DHA does not penetrate beyond the skin surface. It is active only in the stratum corneum, the epidermis’s protective outermost layer of dead skin cells. Antioxidants such as caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE) may be added to the self-tannerto mitigate the artificial-looking orange or yellow color DHA can produce on the skin and achieve a more natural tone.
Which Type Do I Use?
Today, sunless tanners are available in creams, lotions, gels, pump sprays, aerosols, and wipes. Advances in technology have made all of them easier than ever to apply, and more capable of providing natural-looking color, but each formulation offers different advantages. Creams and lotions are the most popular due to ease of use; they don’t dry too quickly, so they allow users to adjust the amount on the skin to assure even application. They are also hydrating. Gel self-tanners often absorb quickly, but may be too drying for some people. Pump sprays and aerosols, while easy to apply, still need to be rubbed in to assure uniform application. They should be used in well-ventilated rooms, since the effects of inhaling them are unknown. Wipes are easy to apply and convenient to carry around, but if not applied carefully, may produce patches or streaks of color.
A Positive Trend: The Growth in Sunless Tanning
Research published in Archives of Dermatology in 2010 showed that encouraging women to use sunless tanning products may reduce UV tanning if the women are warned about the risks of tanning. Thus, the self-tanning market is poised for growth, with self-tanning products for home use and at salons offering spray tans. Today the online retailer Drugstore. com sells 89 different self-tanners, from products for people with very light skin, to moisturizers that gradually deepen your skin tone, to tanners that make the skin shimmer. If you want a bronzed look, elf-tanners offer a safe, effective alternative to UV tanning.