The Science of Self-Tan: How It Works and Which to Try

The Science of Self-Tan: How It Works and Which to Try featured image
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There are few things that bring out our inner confidence more than a fresh tan. When we’re glowing on the outside, we feel it inside out, but laying in the sun—or a tanning bed—is not the healthiest way to secure your sun-kissed look. While many of us crave that fresh-off-the-beach bronze, we know that even with ample sun protection, UV tanning in any capacity can be dangerous to our skin health. But, that doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice our summer glow. Ahead, experts talk all things self-tan, from the ingredients inside to which formula is best for you.

Featured Experts

  • Jennifer Segal, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston, TX
  • Nicole Pozniak is a cosmetic chemist at KKT Labs
  • Bethany Menzel is the cofounder of self-tan brand Salty Face
  • Ginger King is a cosmetic chemist and founder of Fan Love Beauty

Self-Tan and Your Skin: How Self-Tan Works

Nowadays, self tanner comes in many shapes and sizes, from sprays to mousses to lotions and drops, but how do these skin-bronzing formulas works? According to cosmetic chemist at KKT Labs, Nicole Pozniak, “Most self-tanners utilize a common active ingredient known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA works by reacting with the amino acids in our stratum corneum to produce a tanned appearance. This phenomenon is known as the Maillard reaction—a non-enzymatic process resulting in the formation of brown melanoidins.”

Derived from plant sources, DHA is a 3-carbon sugar and is the only FDA-approved sunless tanning agent. Cofounder of Saltyface, Bethany Menzel, adds that “some gradual self-tanners also use an ingredient called Erythrulose, which works similarly to DHA. It balances out the color to make it more brown and develops more slowly than DHA, helping your tan look more natural and last longer.”

“I absolutely love self-tanners,” affirms Houston, TX dermatologist Jennifer Segal, MD. “They allow the aesthetic appearance of a tanned glow without the risk of developing skin cancer. UV is a known cause of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Melanoma can spread throughout the body and affect your health and activities like using tanning beds can increase the chance of developing a melanoma by seventy percent. Sunless tanners are safe and effective alternative, just don’t forget to continue using SPF regardless.”

Making Your Pick: What are the Different Types and Tones of Self-Tanner?

While self-tanning is a safer way to tan than sun tanning, many people are hesitant to try out of fear of looking orange. Nowadays, there are countless options for achieving natural-looking sunless tans, you just have to understand which formula is best for you.


“Mousse, lotion, and liquid self-tanners differ in consistency and application,” Pozniak explains. “Self-tanning mousses possess a foam-like texture. Due to this consistency, it allows for an easier application. Overall, mousses are great for an instant bronzed glow.” Menzel adds that, for products that don’t feature a guide color—meaning they don’t have an immediate pigment that shows up on skin to aid in application—the foaming texture can also help you see where to apply.


“Self-tanning products tend to dry out skin so if you have drier skin, lotion or creams with mega-moisturizing ingredients may be more suitable for your sunless tanning needs,” explains cosmetic chemist Ginger King. Additionally, self-tanning lotions tend to provide more subtle, gradual results, making them great options for first-time tanners.


“Liquid and water self-tanners have a thin and lightweight consistency,” says Pozniak. “These products dry relatively quickly and are great for layering and building up your bronzed look.” Menzel adds that “Tanning waters are often clear, light in texture, and develop gradually over a few hours, so you don’t have to worry about immediate transfer. They are best for your face where you want to avoid any heavy products and risk getting foam or lotion in your eyes.”

Picking a self-tanner formula with the right base tones to compliment your skin tone is also imperative to creating a sunless tan that is striking yet natural-looking. “There are three types of skin undertones: cool, warm, and neutral,” Pozniak begins. “Warm complexions tend to have yellow undertones, while cool complexions are representative of pink undertones and neutral complexions have a mix of both warm and cool undertones. If you have pink undertones, look for a self-tanner with a green base. This will help cancel out any redness. If you have yellow undertones, look for a self-tanner with a violet base. This will help neutralize your skin’s appearance since violet and yellow are complementary colors. If you have a neutral complexion, self-tanners with either green or violet bases will produce a natural looking tan.”

5 Self-Tanners to Try

Now that you understand how exactly at-home tanning products work and know how to pick the best formulation for your skin type and needs, here are a few of the latest and greatest in self-tanning products, as well as some cult-classics to help get you started on your skin-safe tanning journey.

1 / 5

Tan Luxe x Paris Hilton The Future Collection ($49)

In the hottest self-tan collaboration maybe ever, iconic tanning brand Tan Luxe partnered with Paris Hilton last month for the creation of, what they’ve deemed “the future of self-tanning.” Formulated with the brand’s new Triple Tan+ Technology that penetrates deeper, lasts longer and develops faster, the Future Collection self-tanner comes in a spray bottle with a 360º airless mister for flawless application, but it comes with a tanning mitt, too, for safe measure. Complete with skin-loving ingredients like tri- and tetra-peptides and a summery, Pink Sands fragrance, you’ll be “sliving” for this Hilton-approved tan all year round.



2 / 5

Bondi Sands Technocolor Self Tanning Face Serum ($25)

A new innovation from Australian-made self-tanner brand, Bondi Sands, the Technocolor Self Tanning Face Serum comes in four all-encompassing shades and features a fragrance-free (that’s right, no chemical smell) formula enriched with Dermachromatic Color Technology, vitamin C, chamomile and even Blemish Control Complex to simultaneously tan, soothe and keep skin clear, happy and healthy. Each of the four shades cater to specific skin tones and undertones, ensuring the serum you choose is the perfect fit for you.



3 / 5

Jergens Natural Glow Self-Tanning Mousse ($14)

When it comes to self-tanners, Jergens is one brand that has my heart, and I’m in good company, with stars like Witney Carson also swearing by the brand’s Natural Glow collection. If you’re looking for a natural tan in a pinch, Jergens’ Natural Glow Self-Tanning Mousse is a great option, with its fast-drying, lightweight, and instant and gradually developing color (you’ll see your bronze right away, but the color will continue to develop deeper with time).


4 / 5

L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Drops Fragrance-Free ($17)

Self-tanning drops have become one of the hottest ways to secure a natural-looking glow on the face in no time, and L’Oréal Paris’ Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Drops Fragrance-Free are a new take on a cult-classic, providing skin-care benefits via hyaluronic acid while they gradually bronze the face with no irritating scent. To apply, simply anywhere from 5-10 drops of product into your palm and mix with your favorite moisturizer.



5 / 5

goGLOW Extend ($18)

The definition of a multitasker, goGLOW’s Extend gradual self-tanning moisturizer is packed with hydrating ingredients like organic coconut oil, banana fruit extract, caffeine, kakadu plum fruit extract and vitamin C to help moisturize, firm and support collagen production all while giving you a natural-looking, healthy glow.

BUY NOW – $18

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