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How Does Sunless Tanning Work

We Love That Golden Glow, but What Makes Self-Tanners Work?

Sun-kissed skin may look nice, but tanning can damage our skin and cause premature aging. That's why you might reach for an at-home self-tanner to get your faux glow on. Creams, gels, mousses — oh my! But have you ever wondered what's in the stuff that makes it magically work?

The answer is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It's a type of sugar that's primarily used in sunless tanners. DHA has skin-darkening properties and comes from plant sources like beets or sugarcane. When applied to our skin, DHA produces molecules that are similar to the pigments we get when we tan in the sun.

While DHA is approved by the FDA, there's no clear verdict on how deep it can penetrate the skin, so some people choose to forgo the ingredient. DHA can also be potentially harmful if inhaled — something to keep in mind for airbrush formulas.

There are, however, DHA-free alternatives on the market, which contain a sugar called erythrulose that's found in red berries. Erythrulose works slower than DHA to produce a tan. The DHA-driven sunless tanning process typically takes about four to eight hours to see a color payoff, while DHA-free alternatives can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.

And don't forget to apply SPF! Yes, sunless tanner will give you a beach-ready faux tan, but it does nothing to protect your skin from harmful UV rays.

Now that you know how self-tanner works to get you glowing, watch the latest episode of POPSUGAR's new beauty explainer series, The Makeup, for application tips from our resident beauty expert, Kirbie Johnson.

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