Skin Care & Aesthetics

How to Apply Sunless Tanner

At first glance, Debra Jaliman, MD, seems like an unlikely person to purchase sunless tanner. Her deep Mediterranean skin has a natural bronze glow--and she can easily tan in about a half hour.

But after recommending sunless tanners as a safe alternative to basking in the sun, the dermatologist decided to take some sunless tanners for a test drive. Being in the drivers' seat opened her eyes, as well as the eyes of her patients. She had the signature streaks one associates with sunless tanners, which she admits was a bit embarrassing for a dermatologist who prides herself on aesthetics and skin health.

But all was not lost. She did find the one product that could remove her uneven application (permanent hair dye removal). In addition, she tried again: this time with cream instead of an aerosol spray. And as she practiced, results got better. Now, she is better able to guide her patients, with some caveats that come from her experience.

Sunless tanners have newer features that make their use that much better than in the past, according to experts. But it still takes practice to perfect the art of the sunless tan.

What is Sunless Tanner?

All sunless tanners, whether cream, spray or gel, work through a chemical reaction with a  sugar, called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that stains the skin. DHA interacts with dead surface cells in the outermost layer of the skin, producing a bronzed appearance.

"Sunless tanners have come a long way," says Sinead Norenius, a self-characterized 'melanin challenged' individual who runs the Self Tanning Queen blog. "What you get often depends on the product, but many deliver consistent good results with practice."

One of the biggest innovations in sunless tanners is new odor technology, says Norenius, who is also a licensed esthetician. Smell-rite technology encapsulates the harsh chemical odors, reducing odors by 80 percent, she says. In addition, many sunless tanners have added fragrances, such as coconut, for more pleasant experiences.

Another new trend includes adding additional moisturizing ingredients, since DHA is not known as a hydrating ingredient, says Norenius, who offers a sunless tanning product, called Beautisol. Products nowadays also tout anti-aging ingredients and antioxidants.

"Most products these day try to accomplish more," says Norenius. "So you can do more with your tanner than you did before."

There are guidelines, of course, that everyone should follow when using a tanner. Some companies don't have clear directions on the label, a fact that prompted Norenius to post videos on how to apply sunless tanners effectively.

When beginning, be sure to exfoliate your skin, which will slough away all the dead skin cells and help keep your tan longer. Some sunless tanners include exfoliators as starters. Several sunless tanners have base coats which exfoliate or moisturize the skin, but these products may not always be necessary. "You don't need a hundred different bottles," says Norenius. You can always use a gentle wash cloth to scrub away dead skin cells.

The key to preserving your tan is also using a moisturizer, which will preserve your tan in the days after your darkening, says Dr. Jaliman. When you are ready to apply, use a set of tight-fitting rubber or plastic gloves to avoid getting any discoloration on your hands. Then, remove the gloves and lightly spread the tanner on the tops of your hands. In addition, if you are using any tanner around your face, you might consider putting petroleum jelly on your hair to avoid dying your hair.

In addition to dying your skin, sunless tanners will also make freckles and sunspots a little darker. Norenius recommends immediatly using a Q-tip to dab these freckled areas, especially on the face, so the freckles do not darken.

Application. When applying sunless tanner, be sure to apply it evenly, following the package directions. Many tanners come with a tinted cream to help  allow you to see where you are applying the tanner. Very few people who have applied sunless tanners ca say they've not made any mistakes. It does take practice. In fact, Dr. Jaliman and Norenius both recommend a sunless tanning cream for beginners. Sprays can be messy. The aerosol in the sprays can also dry the skin, says Norenius. Dr. Jaliman also suggests using a bronzer for the face, which can be easier to apply than a sunless tanners. And bronzers can be removed if you make a mistake.

And if you do make a mistake? For Dr. Jaliman, it was difficult to remove the product from her skin, but she did find a permanent hair dye remover that worked to remove the staining. Norenius recommends taking a long, warm bath and then scrubbing your skin-since the tanner interacts with dead skin cells. By sloughing off the top layer of your skin, you will be able to speed up the natural process, whereby the tan fans.

In addition, celebrity makeup artist Kimara Ahnert offers other tips for a streak free self tanners.

  • Do not wax the day of self tanning, as the tan will not take. You need to wait at least 24 hours after waxing to apply a self tanner.
  • Be sure to wear loose cotton clothing after applying a self tanner. Tighter clothing will adhere to the product and remove the tint from your skin. Avoid stocking or pantyhose immediately after applying.
  • Wait at least 12 hours before taking a shower post application for maximum results.
  • Some people tend to use old tanners from last season. As a general rule, self tanning products do not carry a long shelf life and can actually start to degrade after 6 months. This can make them have a foul odor and can even produce unfavorable results or irritate the skin because of the chemicals.
  • Experiment to find the perfect shade (and the right amount of product needed) for you. Unless your natural skin tone is very dark, start off with a product that has a lower concentration of DHA (meaning one that's labeled "fair" or "medium," not "dark" or "deep"), and give yourself two or three applications, spread out over a few days. If you're already looking a little off color, gently scrub the product off in the shower, or go for a swim in a pool (the chlorine will accelerate the fading process).

Marci A. Landsmann is managing editor of Healthy Aging, the magazine that publishes this patient resource center.

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