Sunless Tanner: What You Need To Know About Dihydroxyacetone Is Dihydroxyacetone Actually As Safe As We Thought?



What Is Dihydroxyacetone?

Dihydroxyacetone is the ingredient that is most commonly used in sunless or self tanning products. The benefits of sunless tanning products are numerous as the allow you to get that sun kissed glow without the damaging, prolonged exposure to UV rays. 

Dihydroxyacetone is used in both professional spray tanning treatments and as lotions, creams, mousses and sprays for at home use. For most of these products the active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone, used as the coloring ingredient for these formulations. 

Dihydroxyacetone reacts with the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin and acts to temporarily darken the skin and give it that tanned looking glow. The colouring of the skin will usually fade within days to weeks depending on the product type, i.e. whether it is a gradual tanner or full color product. This fade process occurs as the dead skin cells shed from the skin. This is why sunless tanning products tend to vary in lasting power from person to person. It is also the reason why pre-exfoliation of the skin is preferable when wanting a long-lasting tan. 

Now, on to the safety, sunless tanning products don’t usually contain a sunscreen and even if they do you would have to reapply a sunscreen every few hours to be protected. If you do spend time outdoors with just the sunless tanner, you are still at risk of sunburn, UV damage and at an increased risk of developing skin cancers.  

Most sunless tanning products don’t contain sunscreen. If a product contains sunscreen, the sunscreen will be effective only for a couple of hours. If you spend time outdoors, sunscreen remains essential.

While sunless tanners are a great alternative to prolonged exposure to UV rays needed to tan the skin and are most definitely safer than tanning beds. It is still important to practice sun care when out in the sun. 


the good: Dihydroxyacetone provides the skin with a slight color to give your skin that sunkissed glow. Sunless tanning products are also safer than traditional tanning methods such as prolonged sun exposure or the use of tanning beds.

the not so good:You still need to use sun protection when using a sunless tanner.

Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.

Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients.

Keep an eye on: There are some blogs and articles that discuss other potential safety concerns with dihydroxyacetone, however, the US Food and Drug Administration has evaluated its safety and determined it is safe for use.

What Are The Benefits Of Dihydroxyacetone?

The main benefit of dihydroxyacetone is that it imparts a light color to the skin, giving you that tanned look without the risks of long-term sun exposure. 

Dihydroxyacetone is also considered to give the skin a brown-based tan, rather than the slightly red based tan that other sunless tanning ingredients, such as erythrulose have. 

How Does Dihydroxyacetone Work?

Dihydroxyacetone reacts with the amino acids or proteins in the layer of dead skin cells that sit on the outermost layer of the skin. When dihydroxyacetone reacts with these amino acids it forms brown colored melaninoids. Dihydroxyacetone actually causes the Maillard reaction with these proteins. 

Dihydroxyacetone is a developing tanner, as most sunless tanners are. This means that the color will continue to darker over the 7-12 hours after application. For this reason it is best not to shower, bath or engage in sweaty exercise for the first 12 hours after application. 

What Is Dihydroxyacetone Made From?

Dihydroxyacetone is derived from sugar cane and was discovered in 1920. While it is a naturally-occurring ingredient it is also sometimes synthetically produced. Synthetic ingredients have received a somewhat unfair reputation over the last few years however, they are often a more sustainable and ethical alternative to naturally-derived ingredients. This is because the growing, harvesting, transporting and processing processes involved in using a naturally-derived ingredient can put unnecessary strain on the environment. 

What Are The Side Effects of Dihydroxyacetone?

One of the little known side effects of Dihydroxyacetone is that it can mildly increase free radicals in the skin. Free radicals occur through a process called oxidative stress which can be caused by exposure to UV rays, diet, smoking, and pollution. When there is an imbalance of free radicals they can damage the skin’s cells and have been linked with premature aging. 

This is why many sunless tanning products include antioxidants in their formulation. Antioxidants help to neutralise free radicals in the skin. Some of the more common antioxidants include vitamin E and vitamin C

How To Use Sunless Tanners?

Always follow the directions and safety recommendations on the package. There are also some extra tips below to ensure you get a nice, even-looking tan. 

  1. Exfoliate: It is always a good idea to gently exfoliate the areas you are wanting to apply the sunless tanner to. This helps the tan last longer and can reduce streaks. Make sure to spend a little extra time on the elbows, wrists, ankles and knees. Be careful not to over do it as that can cause irritation and sensitivity, keep it gentle. 
  2. Section it out: Ensure you are massaging the product into the skin in sections rather than trying to tackle large areas. This is because the sunless tanner may start to dry by the time you get to massaging it in and massaging in a semi-dry product is a surefire way to get those tanning streaks.
  3. Let it dry: Make sure to wait at least 10 minutes (or longer if the packaging recommends it) to ensure that the sunless tanner is dry before putting on loose fitting clothes. 

Can You Still Get Burnt With Sunless Tanners?

Absolutely you can. Dihydroxyacetone does not protect you from the sun as it doesn’t contain SPF or change the pigment in the skin. It may make sense that if the skin is darker it may be less affected by the sun. While this may be true of melanin rich skin types, those who naturally have a darker skin tone, dihydroxyacetone does not provide this benefit. 

If you are going to be out in the sun it is always best to make sure to wear a sunscreen and reapply regularly. 

Is Dihydroxyacetone Vegan?

Dihydroxyacetone is a vegan ingredient. As dihydroxyacetone is derived from sugarcane or synthetically produced it does not utilise any animal products or by products. If you are looking for a vegan product, it is always best to check the other ingredients to ensure they are also vegan. This as well as researching whether the brand is cruelty free accredited. 

Is Dihydroxyacetone Safe?

The US Food and Drug Administration has evaluated the safety of dihydroxyacetone and approved it for external use in concentrations up to 15%. However, the FDA states that dihydroxyacetone should not be inhaled or apply to mucous membranes, think lips, nose, eyes. This is because the risks of doing so are unknown. 

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for evaluating the safety and efficacy of skincare and cosmetic ingredients has deferred the review of this ingredient as the FDA has already evaluated its safety and approved its use. 

If you are using a sunless tanning product at home, always follow the directions and safety precautions on the label. Also make sure to avoid the eye, nose and mouth when applying the product. 

Ciriminna R, Fidalgo A, Ilharco LM, Pagliaro M. Dihydroxyacetone: An Updated Insight into an Important Bioproduct. ChemistryOpen.
2018;7(3):233-236. Published 2018 Mar 6.

Perrin DM. A hypothesis for examining dihydroxyacetone, the active component in sunless tanning products, as a topical prophylactic against SARS-COV-2 transmission. Med Hypotheses. 2020;144:110280.



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