Skincare ABCs: ‘D’ is for DHA (Dihydroxyacetone)

Hello again!

Welcome to another week of the Skincare ABC series. Today, we are shaking things up a bit. In the past few weeks, we’ve discussed three major skincare ingredients (AHA, BHA and Vitamin C). The ingredient we are discussing here today differs pretty significantly from ingredients discussed on this blog previously, mainly because it has absolutely no skincare benefit.

I know, I know. Now I’ve REALLY confused you.

Ever wondered what’s in your spray tan or self-tanner? Today, we are discussing DHA, or dihydroxyacetone, the main ingredient in most sunless tanning products.

What is it?

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) sounds pretty scary out of context, but its really just a simple sugar derivative, generally created as a byproduct of bacteria that break down sugar. I would argue that its a natural ingredient, since it is something created in nature without human tampering, but others would argue anything created in a lab is ‘unnatural’.

DHA is the only FDA-approved sunless tanning ingredient, so it is the main component of pretty much every sunless tanner you can get your hands on.

How does it work?

DHA reacts with proteins in your skin to produce a melanin-like substance. Melanin is the pigment in our skin that is created when you are subjected to UV radiation. It’s essentially your skins natural defense mechanism- skin produces melanin to prevent more UV radiation from damaging our skin cell’s delicate DNA. However, the melanin-like substance produced by our skin due to DHA exposure does NOT have the same UV protective benefits of melanin. So, your spray tan will NOT protect you from UV radiation!

Once the DHA comes into contact with your skin, it takes about 2-4 hours for the tan to start to develop. Your tan can continue to develop over 24-72 hours, depending on the formulation. Of course, the concentration of the DHA in your product will determine how quickly the tan will develop, and impact the overall color your tan will give you.

So if all sunless tanners contain this ingredient, why are some better than others?

As is the case with most skin-care products, formulation is KEY. As I mentioned previously, products can contain varying concentrations of DHA. Some common complaints with sunless tanners are the ‘weird smell’ it generates, an ‘orange-y’ or undesireable color obtained, or the ‘streakiness’ of the final development.

Let’s start with the ‘weird smell’ complaint. That strange smell is actually a result of the chemical reaction occurring between the top layer (the dead stuff) of your skin, and the DHA. The reaction is similar to the one that occurs on the surface of meat as you cook it in a skillet called the mallaird reaction. This smell results from the DHA interacting with various amino acids in the top skin layer.

In terms of color, the undesirable color is usually a direct result of how much DHA is in the product, whether or not is mixed with other ingredients that can alter pigments, and how it’s applied. If too much DHA is applied to the same area (a common problem in sunless tanning machines), an unnatural, over-darkened patch can occur. Oftentimes, formulas contain other pigments that can give sunless tans a more purple or red undertone, allowing the user to pick a shade that ‘matches’ their skin tone a little better.

As far as ‘streakiness’ goes, the major culprit is application of the product. If uneven amounts of product are applied, it will result in an uneven color. If you happen to miss an area, or not get great coverage (or perhaps too much) on other areas of the body, it will also result in a streaky-looking tan. The best way to avoid this when using at-home products is to use an applicator mitt, and take your time to spread the product out and work it into the skin.

Sunless Tanning Products

Everyone has a favorite sunless tanner, but I would argue I have a few favorite options. My absolute favorite will always be going to a sunless tanning professional to get an airbrush tan. These professionals have been trained in the appropriate application of the product, as well as the amount of the product required to get the customers desired color. Having someone physically airbrush you is a huge plus for me, because they can actually see (and get into) every nook and cranny that needs color. As an added bonus, some sprayers have specialized nozzles for their spray tan guns that can create really fine lines and actually contour the body, much like you can do with make-up. I’ve had several airbrush tans from the ladies at QuickTan, and every single one has turned out fabulous!

If you don’t have the desire to strip down for a spray-tan professional, my next-best thing is the St. Tropez Sunless Express Bronzing Mousse. It develops in 1-3 hours, which is a significant improvement to many of the 6-8 hour formulas. I always use a tanning mitt to ensure a streak-free application. It turns out to be a much better value than a spray tanning service, and you can do it quickly and fairly easily at home. I prefer wash-off formulas to creams/lotions because I’ve found that most of the lotion type formulas rub off on my clothing when I sweat.


I hope you learned a little more about your fake tan today šŸ˜‰

As always, feel free to leave a comment/send a message with any questions/thoughts!


Follow along on IG: @amadadev4

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