Meet the Expert
- Laura Lam-Phare is a cosmetic chemist based in West Hollywood, California.
- Dr. Michele Farber, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia.
- Rhiannon Mitchell is a co-founder of the tanning brand Luna Bronze.
DHA is somewhat of a unicorn in the beauty ingredient world in that, one, itâ€™s only found in one category of products, and two, itâ€™s really the only ingredient that can do what it does. Read on to learn exactly how that faux tan comes to be.
Type of ingredient: A sugar
Main benefits: Causes a chemical reaction in the skin that creates a darkening of the cells for a tanned look.
Who should use it: Anyone who wants the look of a tan without the sun damage. DHA is generally well-tolerated by most, though it can sometimes cause contact dermatitis, says Farber.
How often can you use it: The darkening effect of DHA develops within 24 hours and lasts up to a week, on average.
Works well with: Many hydrating ingredients, which are often combined with DHA in self-tanning products, particularly moisturizers and serums, says Farber.
Don't use with: Alpha hydroxy acids speed up the breakdown of DHA; while they're a good way to remove your tan once you're ready, don't use them when applying self-tanner.
What Is Dihydroxyacetone?
â€œDihydroxyacetone, or DHA as it's more commonly referred to, is a colorless sugar compound that's used in most self-tanners," says Mitchell. It can be synthetically derived or derived from simple sugars found in sugar beets or sugar cane. Fun fact alert: Itâ€™s the only ingredient approved by the FDA as a self-tanner, adds Lam-Phare. When it comes to beauty products, you'll only find it in self-tanners, though it's also sometimes used during the wine-making process, notes Mitchell.
How Dihydroxyacetone Works
As mentioned, DHA's primary (read: only) function is to create a temporary darkening of the skin. How does it do this? Time to get nice and nerdy for a second, because it all hinges on the Maillard reaction. If the term sounds familiar, itâ€™s likely because you probably heard it in high school chemistry class, or while watching the Food Network. Yes, the Food Network. â€œThe Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction that's also known as non-enzymatic browningâ€”itâ€™s why red meat browns when cooking,â€ explains Lam-Phare.
We know, it's a little bit strange to compare a sizzling steak to self-tanner, but hear us out. As it pertains to the skin, the Maillard reaction occurs when the DHA interacts with amino acids in the proteins of the skin cells, causing the production of melanoids, or brown pigments, Lam-Phare explains. This, in turn, creates a tanned appearance.
It bears mentioning that this reaction only occurs in the epidermis, the very top layer of the skin, which is why self-tanner isn't permanent. Once those tanned cells slough off, the darkened appearance disappears. (It's also why exfoliation is the key to removing DHA; more on that in a moment.)
Side Effects of Dihydroxyacetone
Farber says DHA is generally pretty well-tolerated by most people, though it can cause both contact dermatitis (rashes, irritation, redness) as well as an allergy. Mitchell adds that people who do experience reactions when using self- tanner may actually be reacting to another ingredient or preservative in the formula, and not the DHA itself. As such, seeking out formulas that rely on naturally-derived DHA and that contain minimal other ingredients can be helpful.
However, your best bet is to always do a patch test on a small area before widespread application, particularly if you have sensitive or easily irritated skin, suggests Farber. She adds that if you're using a self-tanning spray, it's also important to cover your eyes and mouth in order to avoid inhalation. Oh, and FYI, one of the biggest drawbacks of DHA is the unpleasant smellâ€”it's what gives self-tanners that oh-so-distinct odor.
How to Use Dihydroxyacetone
First and foremost, don't forget that DHA itself is colorless and that it can continue to react in and darken the skin for up to 24 hours after application, says Mitchell. "That's why it's so important to always wash your hands after using self-tanner. Even if you can't see the color at application, the DHA is still there and will continue to create the tell-tale tanned palms that no one wants," she points out.
There's no shortage of different formulas to choose from, ranging from creams and sprays to serums and drops, so whichever one you go with is a matter of personal preference. (Oh, and the amount of dihydroxyacetone in the formula directly correlates with how dark the self-tanner promises to be.) Your best bet is to follow product directions, and remember, just like DHA essentially stains your skin, so too can it stain clothes and sheets, so make sure to plan accordingly after use.
What's oftentimes more challenging than using DHA is removing it. If you're unhappy with a streaky tan or accidentally went too dark, don't stress. Remember that it ultimately will fade and go away once those darkened skin cells slough off, usually within a week. That being said, if you need to speed up the process, exfoliation is your best bet, more specifically chemical exfoliation. "Alpha hydroxy acids are an extremely effective way to remove DHA and any leftover tan because they help to slough off the dead skin cells, as well as the residual DHA," explains Mitchell. Similarly, exfoliating the day before you tan can also help ensure you get the most even result, she adds.
Above all, one of the most important things to keep in mind when using self- tanner is that dihydroxyacetone does not, we repeat, does NOT, offer any type of sun protection. It's a fact that all three of the experts we spoke with underscored repeatedly. "Some people feel that the darker their skin is, the more protected from the sun they are, but that's not the case," says Lam-Phare. It's imperative to maintain your safe sun habitsâ€”most importantly to shield your skin from UV damage, but also to keep your faux glow looking fresh, as sun damage will actually speed up how fast your self-tanner fades and can leave it looking splotchy, Mitchell points out.
Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is approved in self-tanning products by both the FDA and the EU's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. In 2010, the latter organization stated that in concentrations up to 10 percent, DHA poses no risk to consumer health. Do note that the FDA stresses the importance of not letting DHA near your lips, eyes, or any other areas covered by mucous membranes.
Though the FDA has approved the topical application of DHA in self-tanners and bronzers, the ingredient is not approved for ingestionâ€”and it could be easy to ingest DHA if your eyes and mouth aren't properly covered in a spray tanning booth. So if you decide to get sprayed by a pro, make sure you're receiving adequate protection.
Below, check out some of the best self-tanners.
Braunberger TL, Nahhas AF, Katz LM, Sadrieh N, Lim HW. Dihydroxyacetone: a review. J Drugs Dermatol. 2018;17(4): 387-391.
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