In the midst of summer, we all coat our skin in a thick layer of pale white sunscreen in order to stay a little safer from the sun’s harmful UV rays (or at least we should).
But how are we supposed to get that gorgeous summer glow when we’re constantly lathering that stuff on?
Self-tanning lotions and gels have become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to achieve that natural-looking tan without having to spend hours in the sun. And while most of these products contain the ingredient DHA, which is responsible for the orangey-brown coloration of tanned skin, there are now a few brands making self-tanners without DHA.
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How Does Self-Tanning Work Anyway?
Most sunless tanning products use DHA as an active ingredient. The DHA causes a chemical reaction on our skin, which, in turn, creates a slightly darker skin tone on that top layer.
The chemical reaction gives self-tanning products their smell, which lasts for days (because the reaction is continuous).
If you’re a regular user of self-tanner, you probably know that it takes about 24 hours for this darker color to show, and after about three days, it begins to fade away if you’re not applying it consistently.
It begins to fade because our body naturally sheds the dead skin cells on that top layer of skin.
What’s Wrong With Conventional Self-Tanners & Spray Tans?
There are a few reasons why you might want to avoid conventional self-tanning products.
The biggest reason is that they can contain harsh chemicals, like parabens and phthalates, which can be damaging to our health in the long run.
Some people also may want to use self-tanners without DHA, either because they think DHA could be harmful or because they’re allergic to it.
Putting the other ingredients to the side for a minute (we’ll talk about them more down below), you may be wondering if you should make the switch to self-tanning without DHA, so let’s talk a little bit about what that active ingredient is and how it can affect you.
What is DHA?
If you’ve ever been pregnant (or tried to get pregnant), you have likely taken a DHA supplement. This type of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is good for brain and eye development in babies.
The kind of DHA in self-tanning products, however, is completely different. It’s called dihydroxyacetone, and it’s the same thing that causes your fruit to turn brown when it gets hot. In self-tanners, DHA is typically made in one of two ways: 1) synthetically with glycerin, or 2) more naturally out of beets or cane sugar.
Sounds safe enough, right?
Well, it probably is safe. If used properly.
(Speaking of pregnancy, check out this guide to find the best pregnancy-safe makeup!)
Is DHA Bad for You?
DHA has been minimally researched, but most researchers believe that it’s safe to use, as long as it is only applied externally to the skin.
This is because DHA in self-tanners can cause major issues if it makes its way into your bloodstream. Researchers believe that once it gets into your blood, it may cause gene mutations and DNA damage.
It’s unlikely that your at-home self-tanner will make it into your bloodstream when used correctly though. Most scientists and product-testers conclude that self-tanning products stay on the top layer of your skin and do not penetrate any farther, though they are not 100% certain (which is always a drawback for me).
It is possible, however, to breathe it in, and this is where the real issues come into play.
If DHA gets into your lungs, some doctors believe it may increase your risk of asthma and other respiratory issues, and it may even cause lung cancer.
This is why you should skip spray-on tans altogether. When using a spray tanner, whether at home or at a tanning salon, it is nearly impossible not to inhale the fumes.
It’s also worth it to note that the DHA in self-tanners is approved by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, but since self-tanner is a cosmetic, it doesn’t have to go through FDA approval before hitting the shelf at your favorite store.
Can You Be Allergic To DHA In Self-Tanners?
The biggest risk when using lotion-style self-tanners is with allergies because some people are allergic to DHA. People with sensitive skin or an allergy to DHA will likely react to the product, which can cause a red, itchy rash.
If you have sensitive skin, you should not use self-tanning products with DHA, or you should avoid self-tanning altogether.
Other Allergy & Skin Issues With Self Tanning Ingredients
There are a few other ingredients in self-tanning products that you should be aware of if you have allergies or sensitivities, like parabens, phthalates, and retinyl palmitate. We’ll talk about them in further detail below.
Self Tanning Without DHA & How To Find A More Natural Self Tanner
There are a few DHA-free self-tanners on the market, but they will not work exactly the same as traditional sunless tans. Many are made with oils and/or food products like cocoa powder and will fade quicker and potentially wash off when you get in the water.
If you’re interested in a more natural product, there are a few other ingredients that you should try to avoid as well.
Parabens are preservatives that are added to many health and beauty products. They keep the products from growing mold and bacteria. However, Parabens can also be harmful to our health because they mimic estrogen and may lead to breast cancer.
I have a full post all about parabens and other products that you should avoid in your makeup and beauty products if you want to learn more about them.
To avoid parabens, turn over the container of the sunless tanner that you’re looking at, and make sure there aren’t any ingredients listed that end in ‘-paraben’ (like methylparaben or ethylparaben).
Avoid Added Fragrances
DHA has a scent that is difficult to escape. That’s why many brands choose to add some fragrance to their products — in order to cover up the smell.
Fragrance, however, is not regulated at all by the FDA, and companies are not required to disclose the ingredients they use to make it. (It’s considered a trade secret.)
Many brands use phthalates and other potentially harmful chemicals in their fragrances, so you should steer clear of any self-tanners that don’t list the ingredients in their fragrances or aren’t marked “Phthalate-free.”
Avoid Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl palmitate is a type of Vitamin A that many skin products use as an anti-aging agent.
However, a 2012 study found that when you rub Vitamin A on your skin and then go out in the sun, it may contribute to skin cancer. “Scientists have found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia, and that in sunlight, retinyl palmitate can form small molecules called free radicals that damage DNA,” says the EWG.
“The EWG recommends that consumers avoid skin products containing vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinoic acid.” –EWG
Tips for Using Self-Tanner if you Have Sensitive Skin
If you usually get a rash when you use self-tanner, there are a range of ingredients that you could be allergic to. Your skin could be reacting to the fragrance, alcohol, or (of course) the DHA.
If you must use a self-tanning lotion, first you should try to figure out which ingredient is causing the problem. This can be done through a process of elimination. Try a self-tanner without fragrance, then try one without alcohol, and then try self-tanning without DHA.
When you get home with your new tanning lotion, first you should swab it on a small area behind your ear. That way, if you react to it, the irritation will be in a more discreet (and easier to reach) area.
You should also apply lotion and get your skin super moisturized before applying self-tanner. Dry skin can make the irritation worse!
The Best Self-Tanner without DHA
The Chemistry Brand – Glow Oil
This “glow oil” is made with raspberry-based sugars, and it’s completely DHA-free.
It will give you a glowy bronze tone after a few days of use.
It comes in a small, travel-sized container, but it lasts a lot longer than it looks like it will. You can likely get about 10 tans out of it (each tan lasting a little under a week)
- Since it’s an oil-based formula, it’s super moisturizing and great for dry skin
- Does not give an orange tint
- Has an oily feel until it dries (lasts about an hour)
- Some reviewers say they broke out after using it
The Best Non-Toxic Self-Tanner
If you’re mainly searching for a self-tanner without DHA because you want something that’s safe and non-toxic (and you’re not necessarily allergic to DHA) you may want to consider the one below.
Beauty by Earth *Contains DHA
This tanner contains natural and organic ingredients. It’s lotion-based, so no worries about inhaling the DHA. It doesn’t have any parabens or phthalates, and it gives you an even color when you apply it correctly.
As with other self-tanners, you should apply this one after gently exfoliating and applying body lotion. It goes on smoothest if you use a glove, which you can purchase at the same time for a slight discount.
- Money-back guarantee
- Smooth formula
- Long-lasting tan (and product)
- Contains DHA
P.S. Beauty by Earth is one of our favorite non-toxic beauty brands. You’ll also find them on our list of the best eye creams, non-toxic bath bombs, and more!
How to Get a Fake Tan More Naturally
You can also DIY your fake tanner using natural ingredients that you probably already have in your house.
All you need is some basic lotion (which you can also make at home) and cocoa powder. This isn’t a waterproof formula, but it will give you a darker color that will last all day. Plus, you’ll smell like chocolate!