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Kris Carr

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Faux-Glow 101: Are Self-Tanners Safe? Plus Natural Alternatives…

Hiya Gorgeous,

Hallelujah—it’s almost summertime! Once the warmer days kick in, I’ll be baring a little more skin than usual (while wearing some trusty SPF). There’s nothing better than puttering around my farmette in tank tops, shorty shorts and Crocs (I don’t care what fashion people say, I love them).

And although I enjoy seeing some color on my cheeks this time of year, I know it can come at a cost—especially since I racked up my share of unprotected skin-baking hours in my earlier days. I’d slather on baby oil when my parents weren’t looking and fry myself like an egg on a griddle.

By now we understand that too much of the sun’s UV radiation can cause skin damage and potentially lead to cancer.

(Read my blog on sun safety here).

No bueno. So naturally, as we’ve become more savvy about protecting ourselves from these consequences, self-tanners and spray-on tans have become more popular. All the glow without the sun exposure—sounds like a no brainer, right?

Of course it’s never quite that simple, which is why I did a deep dive on self-tanners for you today. Not that I’m encouraging you to use them (I don’t) but this question has come up a lot, so here we go!

We’ve talked in the past about how our skin acts like a sponge and absorbs many of the chemicals in skincare products. These chemicals can be stored in the body over time, and although we don’t know the long term effects of this build up (aka body burden), the things we do know are alarming. Better safe than sorry if you ask me.

So how do self-tanners measure up with this in mind?

The Science of Self-Tanners

First, let’s look at the science behind how self-tanners work.

Have you ever paused to wonder what could temporarily turn your skin a darker shade? Kinda weird to think about! The active ingredient in most self-tanners and spray-on tans is dihydroxyacetone, also referred to as DHA.

DHA is not a stain or a dye. It’s a sugar that interacts with amino acids and protein particles in the top layer of dead skin cells. This causes a chemical reaction and produces pigment—that “tan” look. The reaction is similar to the way a cut apple will brown when exposed to oxygen in the air. DHA can be manufactured synthetically from sources like glycerin, or it can be derived from natural sources like beet sugar or cane sugar (keep in mind that even though the word “natural” is used here, beet or cane sugar DHA is still DHA).

The Downside of Spray Tans and DHA

So what does the research about DHA safety tell us?

It’s important to note that while the Food & Drug Administration allows DHA to be applied externally for skin coloring, it should not be “inhaled, ingested, or exposed to areas covered by mucous membranes including the lips, nose, and areas in and around the eye.”

You might think, well duh, I’m not going to eat my self-tanner, but not so fast! Inhalation and ingestion of DHA can be difficult to avoid when you’re dealing with spray-on applications. So for the love of your health, avoid the spray-on tanning booths.

When it comes to applying DHA-containing self-tanner in the forms of cream and lotion, things get a little foggy. Some research shows that DHA does not migrate past the outermost layer of skin, or the “dead skin layer”, while other research shows that DHA can migrate to the living layers of the skin after all, but it’s unclear what happens from there.

Even though we don’t have a conclusive answer on this, the following recent research on DHA makes me think twice about exposing my skin to these products (synthetic or natural).

A few years ago, an ABC News investigation reported that DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage. Concerns were raised by a panel of medical experts, ranging across the fields of dermatology, toxicology, and pulmonary medicine, who reviewed 10 of the most current publicly available scientific studies on DHA, including a federal report ABC News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Some of the studies found DHA altered genes of multiple types of cells and organisms. Again, no bueno.

How to Stay Safe While Using Self-Tanning Creams

As with anything, let your common sense be your guide and choose your self-tanner wisely. If you decide to use self-tanner, consider skipping spray tans altogether and limiting your use of creams to special occasions.

In addition, use a cleaner formula. Most drugstore and department store varieties contain some pretty nasty ingredients including dyes, harsh synthetics and fragrance in addition to DHA, which can cause reactions, or include known carcinogens and hormone-disrupters. Look for self-tanners that are made with natural and simple botanical ingredients.

For a completely natural, vegan and DHA-free self-tanner, try Haut Cosmetics Caramel Tan.

Although I haven’t actually tried this brand, many healthy beauty bloggers I follow recommend it. (Yes, it’s pricey but unfortunately I have not found a more affordable DHA-free option out there—let me know if you have!) The active tanning agent is a natural sugar that berries produce, which has a similar chemical reaction on skin as DHA and creates golden buildable color that doesn’t look orange or streaky.

How to Get That Faux-Glow Naturally From Botanical Sources

Want to play it as safe as possible? Skip the self-tanner altogether and rely on nature’s goodies to get your glow on.

Here’s one cool way to boost your color naturally while infusing your body and skin with radiance and nutrients.

  • Some folks suggest incorporating sea buckthorn berry oil into your skincare routine. Bright orange and full of beta-carotene as well as other powerful antioxidants and nourishing omegas, this oil can give a bit of a bronzing effect when diluted and applied topically as a moisturizer. To get started, add a few drops of sea buckthorn berry oil to a few ounces of jojoba oil and shake well to blend. Test the color on your skin before adding more sea buckthorn. It’s intensely pigmented and will stain if not properly diluted, so start with a little at a time until you find the perfect ratio for your coloring.

If you’re looking for a summery tint, I hope this information helps you make better choices. Do what brings you joy and confidence. Love you.

Your turn: Do you have a self-tanner tip to share? Add it in the comments below!

Peace & beach umbrellas,

Add a comment
  1. Sophie Karakousis says:

    Hello!

    I love http://www.ecotan.com.au/

    Friendly on our furry friends too !

    Sophie

    • Brenda says:

      The ecotan brand looks organic but still uses glycerin which acts as dha, right?

      I am so grateful for this blog… I have been using self tanners for years and am now worried about the damage it’s done…

  2. Wow, I said to the universe “I need a sign in the next 24 hours to let me know if I’m doing the right thing and should stay the course” and then I get your post via email. I’m a makeup and airbrush tanning artist in NYC. Two days a week I do airbrush tans at an organic wellness spa where the boss is always touting the safety of our organic formula but I knew that, despite the DHA being sourced from “organic sugar cane”, that it’s still DHA (as you’ve said). I’ll do 15 or more clients back to back and I’ve thought, “this can’t be good for me at all” as I’m breathing it in all day. I really don’t want to be a part of something that could be harmful to others or myself so now I’m completely reevaluating my position. In the meantime, I’m getting my clients nose plugs, eye protectors, and wearing a face mask for myself. Thank you!

    • Brenda says:

      I am with Julie! It’s a total sign to me… I’ve been doing my own research about the safety of self tanners because I now concerned… And here is your blog…. Very timely. Well done Kris! -what are we to do?! I’m so pale… And it’s not a pretty pale… I’m going to try the buckthorn berry oil. Thanks Kris!

  3. Virginia Trinque says:

    Can you comment on Suzanne Somers’ Golden Tanning Serum? It’s Organic and certified toxin free. Thank you!

    • Brenda says:

      It has dihydroxyacetone in the ingredient list… Which is DHA … Yes it says from Eco certified sugar…. But it’s still DHA…

      • Pamela Joy says:

        Thanks Brenda,
        What do you know about Suzanne Sommers’ Honey Tinted Mineral Sunscreen?
        My mother-in-law just gave me some.
        Have a beautiful day!
        Pam

  4. Virginia Trinque says:

    Oh and great blog Kris. I threw away my self tanners years ago and have been looking for something. I unfortunately have sun spots emerging from sunning with baby oil years ago! Can you write a blog on safe, natural, organic skin spot lighteners next, please? Elure was mentioned on a show recently as being safe, healthy and effective, but I’m always wary. I love your helpful and health saving tips!

    • Brenda says:

      I was visiting a friend in Laguna beach California where we went to an incredible spa resort… The aesthetician recommended all natural organic products. For skin lightening she recommended from the brand Eminence… Bright skin licorice root booster serum… I love it!

      • Jessica says:

        Hello! I live in Laguna Beach, CA. What was the name of the spa where they recommended all natural products? I have been to a few great places here, but they all recommend products loaded with toxins. Thanks for your help!

  5. Mary says:

    I have very fair skin! Prone to basel cell cancers. Do you have knowledge about sun blocks or supplements for the fairest of us all? Recently N Y Times had an articles on Niacinamide or Nicotinamide to help.
    I know there is controversy about sun blocks!
    Love your blogs!
    Mary

  6. Tammy says:

    I think Suzanne Somers’ self tanner is a good one. That’s the one that I have been wanting to try.

  7. Emily says:

    I use Josie Maran Argon Bronzing Oil and it’s fabulous! Number one ingredient is organic argon oil. I’ve seen such a turn around in my skin using her cosmetic line that I won’t ever go back to anything else!

  8. Sally staples says:

    $120??? I’ll stay pale lol

  9. Ayaka says:

    Great information! BUT… I think trying to get tan is such an old fashion thing to do. If you look at your favorite models and Hollywood stars, nobody is really trying to get that look. Nicole Kidman, Emma Stone, Cara Delevingne, and many more, they just have their natural glow 🙂

  10. Hi Kriss,

    Thank you for the great info on self tanners. Though it seemed like a better idea then sun exposure, I knew there were a lot of questionable chemicals in the ingredients, and I found the few I did try streaked and I could not tolerate their fragrances and funky odors after the application. I am going to try the Haute Cosmetic recommendation and see how that goes.

    On a totally separate subject, I was wondering if you would explore another topic for us? I recently learned that the beads in skin exfoliators is getting into the stomachs of fish and killing them. I read this on the internet. I am very troubled by this news and will not be purchasing my facial exfoliator from Mychelle Dermaceuticals in the future as a result.

    Would you consider looking into this and helping identify some skin care products that exfoliate safely with out the beads? I thought you would be the go to gal for such an undertaking!

    Thanks for listening and your continued inspiration.

    Blesssings,

    Nancy

    • Kris Carr says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Nancy! xo, kc

    • Ashley P. says:

      Hi Nancy! Lemongrass Spa uses jojoba beads in their facial polish (scrub) and ground pumice in their microdermabrasion creme.

    • Monika says:

      Chickpea or rice flour (made into a paste with some water) as well as the sugar+olive oil combo have been great exfoliants for me. If it’s edible it won’t harm the environment either. You can look up recipes on the net and they’re really simple. Have fun experimenting!

    • Hi Nancy,
      Try a “chemical” exfoliator rather than a physical one. Naturopathica is a great company based out of Long Island, NY that makes gently glycolic and lactic acid peels made from figs, cherries and pumpkin (ingredient used depends on your skin needs – dry, acne prone, aging etc). Most of their products are vegan, gluten free and most ingredients are 100% natural, many ingredients are 100% organic (varies by product but they give that info out freely). I don’t work for them – just a customer who LOVES their products (I have rosacea and always thought exfoliation was too rough for me – these peels are gentle and I’m way happier with my skin than ever before). They are a bit pricey but I find them worth it (and love how open they are about their ingredients). Good luck!

  11. Christine says:

    What about using Pretty Peaushun? It’s not a self tanner parse but it makes your limbs look fantastic for the day/night. Its natural and gives you a little sparkle and hint of colour while smoothing out little imperfections. I LOVE it.

  12. Ali F says:

    I’ve never been a self-tanner person, but I have a few events coming up and no time to actually get a real tan. After some research, I ordered Chocolate Sun (unfortunately it has DHA from sugar beets), but it is free of parabens, harsh chemicals & animal products. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’ll report back when I do!

  13. Kathy Gilde says:

    Eco Certified Toxic-Free self tanners by Chae Organics can be found at http://www.healthyhomecompany.com/514150

    Been using this self tanner with many compliments!!

  14. Jennifer says:

    I have heard about using plain old tea to tan your skin. Supposedly, it’s a build able tan also. Saw it on you tube. Has anyone tried it? Seems like this would be the safest route to try.

  15. Casey says:

    I came across this UK brand when I was on my DHA free self tanner hunt, though I see it contains glycerin. Did you say that wasn’t great?
    By looking at ingredients which do you believe to be a wiser investment for those bare more than usual special occasions? Haut or Melvita’s??

    Kris, i can’t thank you enough for your in touch, relevant wisdom…I so need and adore you!!!

    Fyi, I have given 11 sets of your precious cards as gifts to all I know! It’s been my favorite thing to give to all i Adore!! They are so Beauitful and can’t help but make you smile. I send 1 in each of my girls lunchbox everyday and then share it with their teachers and friends!

    Xoxo;)

    Self tanner link, please friends tell me what you think??

    http://uk.melvita.com/prosun-self-tanning-gel-cream,8,1,7465,47055.htm

    • Monika says:

      About glycerin: as far as I know it can be derived from plants or it can be synthetic. The plant one is ok as an ingredient, the synthetic one is something to avoid of course. Unfortunately I haven’t found any indications about how to tell from a ptoduct’s INCI if the glycerin it contains is natural or not. If anyone has any info on that, please share. Thanks.

  16. Caro says:

    I used to use products with DHA until I noticed ½” age spots pop up on my legs. I read a couple of years ago that is one of the “side-effects” for someone who freckles. And I remember years ago (I would put it on before bed), that I noticed scarring between my knees from where I would sleep on my side. So white legs it is!

    Having said all that, I read in “The Green Beauty Guide” that in Europe, they take beta-carotene for a tan but it’s not available in the US. I have a buddy who mail-ordered some years ago & he looked really good, not orange at all. But then I read something about too much beta-carotene causing cancer but I have no clue where, or if it is even true. So white legs it is, still.

    • LORI says:

      Hi purchased some of the beta carotene pills a few years (I am rather pale), but then read that they could be toxic for your liver, so discontinued using them.

  17. Dear Kris, You are a true, rare and beautiful soul. I love your blog, and the wealth of wise, savvy, current, hip, awesome information you share with all. I have always wondered about self tanners, as I am user, and sun lover, but have undergone some close calls at the dermatologist office which made me realize I’m not a young high schooler anymore, no more laissez-faire. It’s hard for me to quit, but reading this, will give me more courage to just love my place self as is. PS: Your comment about Crocs made me laugh out loud. I love mine too. I have a super cute pair of their sexy sandals, and the best part is their comfort factor is out of this world. Thank you 🙂 You’re one of those bright, loving, awesome lights that this world needs more of! 🙂 Your fan from northern California, Anne 🙂

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve heard blending raw cacao powder to coconut oil and using it topically can give you a slight ‘tan’. Haven’t tried it yet, but plan to at some point this summer! Anyone tried this?

    • Teena says:

      Just went and tried it… worked pretty good, I’m excited! I would much sooner smell a little like coconut and chocolate then that weird odor from my self tanner. Plus, it’s instant color, no yellowing with no screw ups…you just keep rubbing it in until it is all blended perfectly. I think the key is to use as little oil as possible so that you don’t end up with overly oily skin and I have no idea if it would stain clothes or not so there are a few move things to consider, but it’s a good start. 🙂

  19. Susan says:

    What about melatonin? I have given up using sunscreen as I think it contains harmful products. I understand that coconut oil can block 30% of harmful rays. What do you think?

    • collette says:

      Every year I’ve gone abroad and used Sun tan cream!
      This year since I’ve been moisturizing with coconut oil I decided to leave off the sun tan cream and just go with the coconut oil
      Ten days into my holiday in Barbados and I’m tanning nicely with no burning – love coconut oil!!!!
      So

    • collette says:

      And in the event of any sunburn – cider vinegar – amazing!!!
      Takes out the sting and tantalum nicely
      Xo

  20. Lyne says:

    Hi , I use Arbonne, safe and excellent product!

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