Going For Bronze: Is Fake Tan Bad For The Skin?

By April 20, 2018Mythbusting

I love a good fake tan. After a lick of the legs with the golden nectar of the Gods, I feel like a superstar… or even a ROCKstar. Sorry, that was cringe. It is by far the only safe way to get a tan as a natural tan is just a signal from your skin that it has been damaged by the sun – I cannot hold back from laying out the truths.

Fake tan has always been a tricky one for me as for years in the skindustry, people have flip-flopped with their opinions on fake tan and its usual primary ingredient, being DHA. Before we even begin to talk about why some fake tans could be harmful to the skin and why the idea of DHA being harmful to the skin came about, I have to explain how fake tan actually works. It is a common misconception that fake tan actually dyes the skin.

How Fake Tan Works

Fake tanners contain an ingredient that the amino acids in your upper-most layer of the skin, AKA your stratum corneum, react to. This process is called the Maillard reaction, which leads to a temporary darkening of the skin. This type of staining in the skin doesn’t sound good at all but remember that it is happening in the stratum corneum which is made up of stratified dead skin cells. This ingredient is usually the aforementioned DHA AKA dihydroxyacetone.

You may be thinking to yourself, “how in the name of arse did someone even think to put a random chemical on themselves in order to see if it would brown the skin?”. If you didn’t think this, why not? Maybe you’re too trusting of a hooman.

What DHA (Dihydroxyacetone) Is

is fake tan bad for skin

Dihydroxyacetone molecule

Eva Wittgenstein was working as a researcher in a hospital in the US in the 1950s when she noticed that one of the medicines she was administering stained the patients’ skin when (hopefully accidentally) splattered on them. Always a self-tester, our Eva, she painted herself in the solution which of course contained DHA. Et voilà, a few hours later, she was brown as anything. From then on, DHA was bottled and sold as an alternative to tan tights which were the dark blue skinny jean of the 50s for the younger readers out there.

DHA is actually something that the human body makes itself, albeit in smaller amounts. The concerns surrounding it are with regard to whether it penetrates the skin fully when included in topical self-tanning products, which has not been proven in studies or in research. In my eyes, DHA is innocent until proven guilty in this respect when it comes to application of it but it may cause harm if inhaled. This is why they tell you not to breathe or to cover your mouth and nose when you’re getting a spray tan.

Which Fake Tan Ingredients Are Bad For The Skin?

It is the additional ingredients in some fake tans that I would question the skin-friendliness of, mainly forms of alcohol actually. Alcohols in products are okay in small doses and it is better if they are non-drying alcohol forms like cetyl and stearyl alcohol but many fake tans are jam-packed with all types of alcohols. Some also contain ingredients that give the skin a smooth finish that are thought to be comedogenic, meaning that they clog pores.

Thankfully, there are now plenty of brands out there that focus on creating self-tanning products that give something back to the skin rather than simply take from it. One particular brand that I am smitten with at the moment is TanOrganic due to the fact that their products contain skincare ingredients, don’t have that curry sauce/digestive biscuit smell and only contain non-drying, skin-friendly alcohol forms.

irish skincare brandsTheir Self Tan Mousse contains organic aloe vera extract, organic beetroot powder, organic baobab seed oil, sodium hyaluronate and organic argan oil. The beetroot powder is in there as a natural colourant so that you can see where that mousse is going whilst applying but I’m a big beet lover so I’d never turn it down anyway. You’ve got those lovely oils alongside soothing aloe vera and hydrating sodium hyaluronate so you won’t be left with the flaky, patchy dryness that occurs after some fake tan products. The mousse is for someone who a) likes a mousse and b) wants a slightly darker tan. If you don’t tick these boxes, I would recommend the Self Tan Oil or Self Tan Lotion instead.

Sunbeds And Tanning Injections

I’m going to repeat what I said at the start of this post: fake tan, as in bottles of fake tan and spray tans, are the only safe way to get a tan. Sunbeds are like Russian roulette where there is more than one bullet in the gun. The World Health Organisation, as quoted on the Irish Cancer Society website, say that “even one sunbed session can increase your risk of developing squamous cell skin cancer by 67% and basal cell skin cancer by 29%and that if you have ever used a sunbed, your risk of getting melanoma increases by 20%. 

Sunbeds aren’t a safer option than natural tanning either, as sunbeds can emit UV rays that are much stronger than the sun we’d be exposed to in warmer climates. Sunbeds increase your risk of all types of skin cancer and prematurely age the skin massively. They should not be even a one-time thing. They should be a never thing.

Tanning injections appear safer from afar as they don’t involve actually subjecting yourself to UV rays.  Melanotan is the synthetic hormone found in tanning injections that essentially increases the production of melanin in the skin, making the skin appear darker. Melanotan I and II are illegal and unregulated. Using an unregulated product of any form means you have no idea what is truly in it and it hasn’t been tested to see if it is safe or effective. The side effects of melanotan are nausea, vomiting, flushing and in the long term, possible melanoma along with other things. I’m sure that it is clear that it is definitely not worth the risk. Please, please stick to bottle or spray tans.

Nerdie Fake-Tanning Tips:

  • You still need to use a broad-spectrum SPF on exposed areas, regardless of whether you’re wearing fake tan
  • Use a chemical body exfoliant prior to tanning, like IMAGE Body Spa Rejuvenating Body Lotion (€41.50), to slough off dead skin cells with acids
  • Remove remnants of fake tan with Urban Veda’s Purifying Body Wash (€18.00) in a lukewarm bath… This works due to the slightly astringent witch hazel
  • Make sure to keep your skin moisturised after tanning and after removing tan with a nourishing body oil like TanOrganic’s Oil Arganic Moisturising Multi Use Dry Oil (€24.99) which contains olive fruit oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil and sweet almond oil.


  • Devon says:

    What kind of sunscreen can you use with a fake tan that won’t destroy it? Any recommendations?

    • Jennifer Rock says:

      In my opinion, highly chemical sunscreens can cause fake tans to fade a bit quicker. I find that sunscreen that uses more mineral sun-protective actives than chemical filters can help to preserve the fake tan! x