How Things Work: Sunless tanning

Sporting a bronze glow is a popular fad that has persisted all over the nation for many decades. Unfortunately, ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases the production of melanin in the body, which can lead to skin cancer. Because of these harmful effects from sunlight, many people have turned to sunless tanning options. Since the 1960s, many alternatives have arisen, such as beds, lotions, sprays, bronzers, and pills.

The skin is composed of primarily two layers: the epidermis on the outside and the dermis underneath. During tanning, but the epidermis is the most affected. The deepest layer in the epidermis, the stratum basale, is involved during sun tanning and the outermost layer in the epidermis, the stratum corneum, is involved during sunless tanning. Sunless tanning does not penetrate the skin as much as sun tanning — and the whole outermost layer of skin is replaced by new skin every 45 days.

Tanning by sunlight is harmful to the body. UV rays from the sun can cause skin cancer, and with prolonged exposure, signs of early aging like sun spots and wrinkles appear.

Sunless tanning helps reduce overall sunlight exposure. A common misconception is that you need to stay in the sun for a long time to get enough vitamin D; in reality, even a little exposure to sunlight provides enough vitamin D for the body.

The first sunless tanning product was produced by Coppertone in 1960: QT, or Quick Tanning Lotion. This cream produced an orange color and did not last very long.

Today, indoor tanning is a $2 billion industry in the United States; there are 25,000 tanning salons in this country alone. However, it’s not without a price: Women who visit tanning parlors more than 10 times a year have a seven times greater incidence of melanoma (a form of skin cancer) than women who did not use tanning salons. Increased use of tanning beds creates skin repair proteins, though; indoor tanning damages skin too, just in a different way than natural sunlight. The UV light from tanning beds thins the skin and decreases its ability to heal. It also can cause premature skin aging and is more likely to lead to wrinkled and sagging skin faster than normal. Since UV radiation can damage your skin regardless of the source, other methods are advised.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends products with dihydroxyactone (DHA) being the most effective and useful. DHA in lotions or sprays interacts with dead cells in the stratum corneum, causing a color change that lasts for about a week. These tans gradually fade because new skin grows while the old skin is worn away.

It is recommended to reapply the lotion every three days. Moisturizers are recommended to keep the top layer from shedding so quickly. With moisturizing, the tan will last longer. It is also recommended to exfoliate before tanning.

Exfoliating eliminates already-dead cells; this ensures that the tan will pigment cells that will live longer. Tanning sprays create an even tone and are easy to use at home.

Tanning mists spray onto the body inside a booth. This is generally found in higher-end salons and spas. The spray is generally either water- or oil-based. People with sensitive skin should opt for a water base. The process eliminates smear lines and provides a natural-looking tan. It is not recommended for people who have excessively dry or flaky skin because spray tanning could result in an uneven tan.

Tanning accelerators contain tyrosine and claim to stimulate and increase melanin formation. Melanin is the dark skin pigment that grows and spreads like a tan, and accelerating its production will also accelerate the tanning process. Research is still premature, and at the moment no data support these claims, but the products are available in the market.

Tanning pills contain canthaxanthin, a common ingredient in food coloring. The FDA has approved its use in food, but not in tanning. Once it is consumed, it is deposited all over the body and causes the skin to become an orange-brown color. This has led to a variety of side effects including yellow deposits in the eyes and hepatitis.

Bronzers are also a popular method. The powders and moisturizers produce a glow that can be easily removed by washing with soap and water. They are considered to be cosmetics and just temporarily tint the skin.

As long as you read up on the risks, sunless tanning can be a viable alternative, especially for people who cannot tan naturally. People with fair skin, red hair, very light blonde hair, or freckles, usually do not tan very well. These products are a better alternative to sun tanning or tanning beds, but using them will not protect you from UV radiation. Products with added sunscreen are not effective because it wears out in a few hours.