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Why You Should Avoid Fake Tan

Fake tan isn't the safe effective to tanning beds that you might think it is. Here's why you should stay away from self-tanner.

Author: Maria Grabar & Sam Pennington

Reading time: 5 minutes

With the growing popularity of research on the effect of sun rays on the skin and the general desire to stay young and healthy for as long as possible, fake tanning is getting more and more popular. However, many people are uncertain about the pros and cons of fake tan and today we'll dive into whether it is good or bad for your skin.

Is Fake Tan Bad For Your Skin?

Fake tan contains DHA which causes damage to the skin. It initiates the formation of free radicals which leads to the breaking down of collagen. This resultantly leads to premature aging skin, characterised by wrinkles, dark spots and sagging skin.

There is a heated debate about the negative effects of self-tan on the skin, but the problem is that there is a lack of in-depth research on the long-term side effects of using it regularly.

Many people compare self-tanning to sunbathing and going to the sunbeds, the negative effects of which are scientifically proven. Thus, in contrast, the fake tan looks less harmful than other methods of tanning even though this isn’t necessarily the case.

As well as this, spray tans must also be considered. One of the greatest concerns about spray tans is the inhalation of toxic chemicals. The chemical may harm your lungs or worsen medical conditions, such as asthma. So, if you decide to introduce this into your regular routine, it is better to hold your breath during the application and ventilate the room thoroughly afterwards. 

Fake Tan

Does Fake Tan Tan Your Skin?

Generally, no, the browning caused by fake tan on your face is different from that caused by UV rays from sunlight. The active ingredient in self-tanning is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple sugar that reacts with nitrogen-containing amino acids composing the protein keratin present in the outermost layers of the skin.

Via the Maillard reaction, melanoidin molecules are produced, the structural relatives of melanin pigment that range from yellow to brown colour. As a result, the skin acquires an attractive golden hue, as if you had just returned from a long vacation in a warm country.

On the contrary, UV-A radiation tans your skin. Sun rays trigger cells in a deeper layer of the skin triggering melanocyte cells that produce the brown-coloured pigment melanin. Melanin protects the skin from burning by distributing UV light evenly towards the top layers of the skin. Having antioxidant and radical scavenging properties, melanin also helps protect our skin’s DNA from UV damage.

Is DHA Harmful To Skin?

While most people turn to self-tanner as a safer option to sitting out in the sun, it can actually be just as harmful – if not more! The DHA in self-tanner can actually make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.

A study conducted by the Gematria Test Lab found that DHA-treated skin had 180% more free radicals when exposed to the sun than untreated skin.

This is particularly worrying as the DHA creates even more free radicals when they are absorbed into the skin and are struck by a UV ray.

In simple turns this means that while fake tans may seem to be saving us from harmful UV rays, they’re actually causing serious free radical damage deeper in the skin, that may be even worse than UV rays in some cases.

Additionally, Maillard reaction in fake tan might cause several unpleasant effects on your skin, namely:

  • Activation of free radicals which may damage skin cell’s DNA 
  • Glycation in the skin, which is the covalent attachment of sugar to collagen and elastin proteins making the skin less firm and more susceptible to external mechanical damage
  • Additionally, a fake tan may be damaging to sensitive skin causing more irritation and itching.

How Long Does Artificial Tan Last?

Normally, a fake tan lasts for around a week as the active ingredient works on the outermost layer of the skin which gets renewed on a regular basis. It also depends on the type of the skin as self-tanner may last less long on the face with dry skin due to its tendency to itching. Additionally, such factors as the shade of the skin, humidity and skincare routine may either prolong or reduce the time your skin stays darker.

Woman applying fake tan

Does Fake Tan Have Long-term Effects?

Unfortunately, a fake tan doesn’t give accumulative or long-term effects simply because it targets the epidermis, the layer of the skin that changes constantly as dead skin cells get generated and rise to the surface. So, there aren’t many ways to make the fake tan last longer apart from weekly reapplying it on the skin of the face and the body which may not be the safest practice.

Does Fake Tan Age Your Face?

As was mentioned earlier, some studies confirmed that DHA may initiate the formation of free radicals in the skin which contribute to premature aging. Free radicals damage DNA in cells disrupting the process of transcription and translation. As a result, the process of protein production gets terminated, and the cell can no longer perform its natural function and dies. When many cells die, some wrinkles and fine lines appear eventually as collagen and keratin fibres can’t work as successfully as before leading to aging.

Does Artificial Tan Cause Dry Skin?

Normally, artificial tans don’t have to dry the skin. However, there are cases when artificial tanning caused irritation, so it would be better to search for a specific fake tan for sensitive skin. It usually depends on the product and a specific formulation, but the active ingredient in form of DHA doesn’t necessarily cause any dryness in people with normal skin.

So, much more clinical research needs to be done to draw a definitive conclusion on whether to say “yes” or “no” to fake tanning. One of the main tips is that any product should be applied to the face and body carefully, monitoring exactly how the skin reacts to these innovations.

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