Golden Grrrls: Go Sunless for a Healthy Tan

Legend has it that the great couturier Coco Chanel made the tan a Hollywood status symbol in the 1920s. In the decades since, a golden glow has become a ubiquitous symbol of youth and vitality – even in the face of considerable medical evidence to the contrary. Indeed, repeated sun exposure can damage the skin’s elasticity and cause skin cancer.

So, what’s a sun worshipper to do? The trend gaining popularity among golden girls and dermatologists alike is the sunless tan. Today’s products – unlike those of years past that turned you a peculiar shade of orange – mean that you don’t have to toast your skin in order to achieve that just-got-back-from-the-beach look.

Now, as always, the active ingredient in sunless tanning products is DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which works by combining with the skin’s amino acids to form melaninoids, which are brown in color. DHA oxidizes your skin, much in the same way leaving an apple out will make it turn brown. What’s makes today’s products different is that the process of refining DHA has improved so that you get the brown without the orange.

Sorting through the myriad of products available can be a bit daunting, but there are quality products in every price range that can be found everywhere from drugstores to department stores.

While you can get a luxurious sunless tan – along with pampering – at a spa, sunless tanning products are marketed with the home user in mind. And because a sunless tan is temporary – it lasts about five days, or as long as it takes the tanned layer of skin to slough off – the commitment to sunless tanning is virtually no different than a commitment to a new color of nail polish.

Unfortunately, the effects of sunless tanning vary with skin type. According to Clara Pettitt, “If your skin only reddens and freckles in the sun, sunless tanners will look as natural on you as a third eye.” She suggests trying light to medium sunless tanners, or mixing tanners with regular lotion for a subtle effect. If you have the type of skin that burns easily and tans minimally, says Pettitt, “Sunless tanners were made for you. Try light, medium and dark formulas.” If you tan gradually to light brown, medium to extra dark formulas will work well.

Keep in mind that sunless tanning lotions generally don’t offer UV protection, so you’re still susceptible to burning when you’re out in the sun. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen!

But in the world of sunless tanning, applying a high SPF sunscreen doesn’t doom you to pale skin. You can have the best of both worlds – golden brown skin without the skin damage. Glow, baby, glow!

Delve Deeper

Taking the Plunge

If you think you’re ready to try a self-tanner, Clara Pettitt offers a quick guide to getting started:

  • Shave your legs at least several hours before applying sunless tanners
  • The best time to apply sunless tanners is two or three hours before bedtime, since you won’t be able to wear street clothes, exercise, swim or bathe for at least one hour after tanning
  • Take a shower or bath, using a cotton washcloth to exfoliate by rubbing your skin gently in a circular motion
  • Apply ordinary skin lotion to your feet and ankles, knees, elbows, hands wrists, and any area with fine lines, such as your neck and face
  • Don dark-colored, tight-fitting clothing so that you can apply the product right up to the edge of the fabric, but avoid fabrics containing nylon, as they will permanently stain
  • Start with your legs, doing an entire leg at a time, starting from the top down; apply tanning lotion quickly but thoroughly, spreading in a circular motion to avoid streaking
  • Check the time; if it has been more than five minutes, wash both of your hands thoroughly using a soapy nail scrub brush in order to avoid orange hands. Complete the other leg and wash your hands again; continue to wash your hands every five minutes throughout the application process
  • Tan your torso next, applying the tanner along the top edge of whatever you are wearing, working your way upwards; stop at your neck; use a sponge paint brush to apply tanner to your back
  • The arms are next, but first apply a small amount of tanner to the backs of your hands
  • Lastly, apply the sunless tanner sparingly to your face and neck; if your hair is short, don’t forget to use it behind your ears
  • Apply small amounts of ordinary lotion to the tops of your feet, blending it up onto your ankle, and to your knees and elbows; generously apply lotion to your hands, blending it onto your wrists; wash your hands with the nail brush for the final time
  • After 30 minutes, you can put on a loose nightgown to wear while your tan is drying and go to bed; when you wake up in the morning, you’ll have a tan!
  • Although the staying power of your tan depends upon your skin type, to maintain your tan you’ll need to apply self-tanner about every three days


If you don’t want to bother with sunless tanning lotions and sprays but still want that sun-kissed glow, Sephora offers a variety of bronzers – a matte finish pressed powder which can be used all over the face and neck for a tanned effect, or over make-up as a blusher, contour color and eye shadow.

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