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Are Sunless Tanners Safe? The Best Tanning Lotions and Gels

A dermatologist tackles the “Are sunless tanners safe?” question, and describes the best tanning lotions and gels. Self-tanning is not only safe and effective, it can keep you from burning your skin to a crisp in the sun!

Self-tanners can help prevent skin cancer (by reducing your time spent in the sun), keep your skin wrinkle-free, and reduce age spots and other discolorations that the sun can contribute to. These tips for the best tanning lotions and gels will keep your skin soft and young looking.

“Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit,” said Ada Louise Huxtable. “A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.”

To keep your skin healthy, you may want to keep your clothes on hot summer days — but I love Huxtable’s advice about shedding your tensions! One way to reduce stress is to stop worrying about skin cancer or age spots — perhaps by using a sunless tanner like the Millenium Tanning New Paint It Black Tanning Lotion.

And, here’s a basic summary of tanning without burning in the sun, plus info about tanorexia (an addiction to tanning beds).

Sunless tanners are more popular than ever because they’re fast, easy, and reduce wrinkles and aging skin. Plus, they keep you out of the sun, which could contribute to a lower risk of skin cancer. There are more and more self-tanning, streak-proof products on the market – such as the airbrush tanning kit (similar to SheerTan’s above).

Tanning lotions and gels work by combining an active ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) with the amino acids on your skin. This interaction causes your skin to get that tan color – so when you buy a self-tanner, make sure it says “DHA” on the label.

Are self-tanners safe?

Here’s the good news from Ariel Ostad, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in New York City and a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University Medical Center: “There are a lot of equally good products and they are all extremely safe. You can put them on and go into the sun, but you will probably still need sunscreen for protection.”

What’s the best sunless tanner on the market?

That’s the “burning” question! “A self-tan that may be great on one person makes someone else look orange,” says Bruce E. Katz, MD, the medical director of the JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York City. “Do a small area first before you commit and try not to experiment before a major social event.”

To find the best sunless tanner, you have to keep experimenting with lotions or gels until you find the right one for your skin type. The best one for your skin type may not be the most popular self-tanner on the market. Katz says, “It’s trial and error and really a question of finding the right one for your skin.”

Dr Katz is a fan of the sunless airbrush tan, which involves spraying the DHA solution on your skin with a spray gun. “It is actually very reliable and you get good results. Not much in the way of streaking,” he says. “You can do it in a spa or purchase an at-home kit.”

Sunless tanners: gels or lotions? “Gels are drying,” says Dr Ostad. “I’d choose lotions or sprays because they go on easier.” When you’re looking for a good self-tanner, avoid the gels.  To keep your skin healthy and young-looking, read How to Improve Your Skin Naturally – The Best Foods for Healthy Skin.

“Tanorexia” is an unhealthy dependence on tanning beds, with withdrawal symptoms similar to alcohol and drug addictions. Researcher Carolyn Heckman, Ph.D., of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Pennsylvania, says that tanning dependence is known as tanorexia because of its similarities to both substance addictions and body image disorders, such as anorexia. “There is some evidence that UV tanning dependence may have biological underpinnings like other addictions, such as the production of endorphins as in the ‘runner’s high,'” she says.

Tanning Lotions and Gels

  • Paint It Black Tanning Lotion
  • Fake Bake Self Tanning Lotion
  • Sun Laboratories Ultra Dark Self Tanning Lotion

For more tips on sunless tanners – and how the sun affects your skin – read How Does the Sun Cause Skin Cancer? Summer Cancer Prevention.

If you have any thoughts about sunless tanners or tanning lotions and gels, please comment below…

Source of the info on self-tanning products: WebMD’s “Summer Buyers’ Guide, Sunless Tanning Lotions.”

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10 thoughts on “Are Sunless Tanners Safe? The Best Tanning Lotions and Gels”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Jess! Your site on sunless tanning looks interesting – I’ll have to check it out.

    I don’t care about getting a tan. So be it, if I’m white as a sheet all summer long! I especially don’t care about lying in the sun. Bo-ring!

  2. Cool quote from Dr. Katz on airbrush tanning! I like the feel of the warm sun on me, but know that it’s not good in excess. Right about this time of year here in the “San Diego winter” I start to freak out about being pale.

    Gotta love the bronze buns without the tanning bed time. I like the no tan lines and ability to choose my shade with self-tanners and airbrush tans.

    And DHA Is good for you!

    Thanks for the info and feedback,


  3. Self tanning lotions are great and I used to use them way before Airbrush Tanning existed. My favorite self tanning cream was the one from Bare Mineral. But for several years I use now Airbrush Tanning because it goes on so flawless. No streak, no orange tint because the solution is being customized based on your skin tone so everyone always looks perfect. The best way to tan now for me is Airbrush Tanning 🙂

  4. Great post. I think self tanners are definitely going to be more and more popular in the coming years. Being orange and gross is hopefully going to be “out” soon, and having a bit of safe color will hopefully replace it.

  5. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Alison, thanks for your tips on sunless tanning lotions. I look forward to reading your article about streak-free suntans 🙂

  6. Self tanner is not too difficult to apply. First thing you need is a quality product with color guide (so you see where you apply the thing), a tanning mitt (for even application and keeping the palms of your hands from going orange) and some patience. Always exfoliate before and moisturize the day after.

  7. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Yes, I think self-tanners have come a long way….I haven’t tried any myself, but a friend of mine uses self-tanning lotions regularly. They work for her!

  8. I’ve never actually tried a self tanner, I’m always worried about looking orange. But from what I’m reading, it sounds like they have come along way since the first ones, maybe I’ll give them a go this winter.

  9. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! I’ve never been a big fan of sitting out in the sun for hours, but definitely like that bronze glow 🙂

    Self-tanners seem like an ideal solution. Never tried them myself, though.