Sunless tanning (also known as self tanning or UV-free tanning) refers to applying chemicals to the skin to produce an effect similar in appearance to a traditional suntan. A more common, although somewhat derisive term, is fake tan.
Sunless tanning arose in response to links between sun exposure and skin cancer discovered in the 1960s, along with other alternatives to natural sun tanning such as the use of a sun bed. The most effective products available are lotions that contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. The tan is not a dye, stain or paint, but a chemical reaction between the DHA and the amino acids in the dead layer on the skin surface. It does not involve skin pigmentation nor does it need UV exposure to initiate the colour change.
The reaction is non-toxic and skin safe, without the damage associated with UV exposure. The tan is temporary and will fade gradually over 3 to 10 days. Some products use Erythrulose combined with the DHA. Erythrulose works identically to DHA on the skin surface, but develops more slowly. The two chemicals used together may produce a longer lasting sunless tan.
Dihydroxyacetone or Erythrulose may cause contact dermatitis. First time users of sunless tanning products should apply them to a small patch of skin and wait 24 hours before a full body application. These products can be applied at home, in the form of gels, lotions, mousses, sprays and wipes. Best results are obtained when applied to clean, dry skin. Bathing and swimming should be avoided until product is fully absorbed, which varies from one to six hours. More DHA is absorbed by the thicker skin on the hands and feet, so those areas should be skipped or cleaned immediately after application.
Professional application options are available from spas, salons, and gymnasiums in the form of sunless or UV-Free spray booths. The enclosed booth, which resembles an enclosed shower cubical, sprays the sunless tanning solution over the entire body. Airbrush spray tans are applied by professional technicians using specialized equipment designed for applying self tanning sprays, such as an airbrush or LVLP spray gun. The technician hand sprays the client from head to toe with a gentle solution misting. Spray tans are becoming more popular due to the fact that a more even tan is possible, plus longer lasting results and as a consequence, more spray tan facilities have appeared, thus bringing the prices down and making it easier and more affordable to maintain a healthy, natural looking tan all year round.