How Do Self Tanners Work?

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

So you have decided to take Sunless Tanning into your own hands. That’s great! With the right products and knowledge, you are perfectly capable of giving yourself a beautiful, natural looking tan. Since self-tanners came out in the 1940’s, the industry has come a long way. Long gone are the days were you could spot a self-tanner by their orange hue. Although it does happen from time-to-time, it shouldn’t and it doesn’t have to happen to you.


It all starts with DHA (Dihydroxyacetone) which is the main, sometimes the only active ingredient in all Sunless Tanners. DHA is a derivative of sugarcane or beets and reacts with the top layer of your skin to produce your tan. It goes on clear and depending on the product you use, it can take anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours to fully develop on your skin. Each product has a different amount of DHA in it. You may need to consider this when choosing which product is best for you.

Generally speaking, Sunless Tanners have between 6% - 14% DHA, and you want to choose one that matches with your skin tone. The Fitzpatrick Scale is that is most commonly used for determining your foundation shade is also used in determining your self-tanning shade.

For those with the fairest skin (Type I) who tend to burn in the sun, like Emma Stone, 6% would be your best bet. For dark skin complexions (Type VI) that rarely burn in the sun, like Naomi Campbell, 14% may be your go-to. If your going with a product line that has different amounts of DHA, or different shades that it is intended for, it's always best to pick the shade that corresponds with your natural skin tone - NOT the color that you want to be. Too much DHA can cause your tan to look unnatural or maybe even a little orange. If you have fair skin, but want a super dark tan, you should pick the product that corresponds with your skin color and simply add a second layer.


A bronzer, which typically consists of food coloring, is a temporary color that is used in many fake tanning products and washes off completely with your first shower. It has two uses: a) it acts as a color guide to show where you have already applied the solution; and b) it gives you color right away while you are waiting for the DHA to develop.

When Applying for the First Time...

As a rule of thumb, it is always best to try your self-tanner on a small area of your skin to make sure there is no adverse reaction to the ingredients. All of the products that are sold through Sunless Solutions LLC use natural ingredients, so an allergic reaction is rare, but possible.

Every self-tanner you get will come with its own set of instructions on the bottle, and it's best to always follow the instructions suggested by that particular item's manufacturer. With most you are going to apply the tanner after exfoliating and within hours, your tan will start to develop. Many bottles will have different directions depending on the results you wish to achieve. Some may instruct you to shower within an hour, some my say to wait 24 hours until showering. Make sure to read the label all the way through before you apply the tanner so you can be ready to do whatever the instructions suggest.


It's important to remember that neither of these, nor any other products used in Sunless Tanners, protect your from the sun! You may have the false impression that you are protected from the sun's rays when your out at the beach sporting your new tan, but you're NOT! You've already made the smart, health-conscience decision of not exposing your skin to a tanning bed, so keep the self-love going...use sunscreen anytime you are exposed to the sun regardless of any self-tanners you have on.

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