The Science Behind DHA in Sunless Tanning Products

The Science Behind DHA in Sunless Tanning Products

If you're into self-tanning, chances are you've come across DHA. Perhaps you've heard that it's the magic ingredient behind that golden hue. But what exactly is DHA? And how does it work its color-changing wonders on your skin?

The best-selling tanning lotion and tan-enhancing kit

UKLOVE b tan clear tanning cream & gel SPF15+ intensive boost tanningWatermelon fragrance pregnancy safe sunless tanner UKLOVE gel SPF15+

Wonder no more! Let’s take a deep dive into DHA tanning to answer these questions and more. Keep reading to discover all about self-tanning's key ingredient, including the optimal type for a gorgeously bronzed body, sans orange tones.


What is DHA and how does it ‘tan’ skin?

DHA, or dihydroxyacetone, is the active ingredient found in many self-tanning products. "A sugar-derived active produced through a natural fermentation process, DHA interacts with amino acids in dead skin cells on the skin's surface," Alexa explains. "This triggers a chemical reaction, resulting in the formation of compounds called melanoidins. These brown pigments then color the skin, mimicking the appearance of a tan." Pretty neat, right?

(For cooking enthusiasts: The process described is known as the Maillard reaction, the same chemical reaction responsible for giving baked goods their golden hue and grilled meats their browned appearance. It's also what imparts those delicious flavors and aromas. But more on that later.)

The Origins of DHA in Self-Tanners gel

DHA, short for dihydroxyacetone, made its debut in self-tanning products during the 1960s. Its ability to darken the skin was stumbled upon by Eva Wittgenstein at the Children's Hospital of Cincinnati during her research on a glycogen storage disease in the 1950s. Wittgenstein observed that when skin came into contact with DHA, it turned brown. This discovery paved the way for DHA to become the primary active ingredient in commercial self-tanners gel, offering a sunless alternative for achieving a tan.

Comparison of three levels of tanning

How Quickly Does DHA Work and How Long Does the Tan Last?

Curious why you can't shower for at least 2 hours after applying fake tan? Well, natural DHA takes about 2-4 hours to activate fully. Even after rinsing off the initial guide color, your tan will keep developing for up to 72 hours. That's why it's wise to apply fake tan at least 24 hours before a big event!

Given that your skin regularly sheds dead cells, a sunless tan usually lasts around 5-7 days. Exfoliating and vigorous activity can accelerate fading, whereas moisturizing helps prolong your radiant glow.

Can DHA in Self-Tanning Lotions Make Your Skin Go Orange? 

Indeed, DHA tanning lotion can lead to an orange hue—but hold off before you toss it! This unnatural shade often results from over-application or leaving the product on for too long.

Selecting the right shade for your skin tone is crucial when choosing a self-tanner. Most products contain 3-5% DHA, with darker formulations having a higher concentration. These darker options can appear muddy or orange on lighter skin tones, so it's wise to start with a lighter shade.

Preparation is key, especially exfoliation. DHA tends to cling to dry skin, so ensure you slough off dead cells to avoid a patchy, orange tan. Additionally, thoroughly remove any existing tan before reapplication, as layering tan-on-tan can lead to undesirable results. Consider yourself warned.

Tanning gel box ratio

Does DHA Self-Tanners gel always have to stink so much? 

Indeed, some self-tanners gel can emit quite an odor during development due to the chemical reaction between DHA and the skin. Just as the Maillard reaction imparts a delightful aroma to baked goods, it contributes to the scent of self-tanners gel. Often described as yeasty or biscuity, this smell can be more pronounced in darker tanning lotions, which contain higher levels of DHA.

However, the quality of your tanning product also plays a significant role in its odor. Opt for a premium self-tanner with positive customer reviews, such as our tanning gel SPF15. Infused with tropical watermelon and peach scents (no cookie scent here!), it's the world's first anti-aging self-tanner with 100% natural DHA and skincare benefits without any harmful additives.

UKLOVE glow tanning salon cream & gel SPF15+ peach fragrance intensive boost tanning

Is DHA Safe in Self-Tanners gel?   

If you're concerned about the potential risks of using self-tanners gel, rest assured that external application of DHA in lotions and gel is FDA-approved. Moreover, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends self-tanners gel as a safer alternative to sun tanning. However, remember that a fake tan doesn't offer any additional UV protection.

Worried about suggestions linking high DHA levels to free radical production? Shield your skin with a high-level, broad-spectrum sunscreen and opt for an antioxidant-rich tanning formula like tanning gel SPF15.

While generally well-tolerated, DHA and other tanning ingredients may cause irritation in individuals with dry skin conditions or ultra-sensitive skin. Thus, it's always wise to conduct a patch test.

Lastly, if you're expecting and curious about self-tanning, check out our Can I Use Self-Tanners gel While Pregnant article for insights.

*Note:tanning presents a different scenario due to ongoing debate regarding potential DHA inhalation. Further research is needed, and the definitive conclusion remains pending.


  1. Ngan, Vanessa. DermNet NZ. Dihydroxyacetone. 2002. 

Other Sources
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. doi:10.1002/open.201700201

Compound Interest. How do Tanning Lotions Work? August 7, 2014.

Check out tan guides & tips here!

Expanded Knowledge

Expanded Knowledge:

As the pursuit of a healthy bronzed complexion continues, the right choice of sunscreen and tanning products is crucial. Here are some products and recommendations you might be interested in:

  1. SPF 50 Sunscreen Combined with Holiday Fake Tan: Choose a sunscreen with a high protection factor to shield your skin from UV damage while also adding a holiday fake tan effect, allowing you to achieve your desired bronzed complexion while staying protected.

  2. Waterproof Sunless Tanner: For those who enjoy water activities, choosing a waterproof sunless tanner is essential. This ensures you can enjoy swimming and bathing without worrying about the tanning effect fading away.

  3. Best Sunscreen for Tanning Pale Skin with Fake Tan Effect: For individuals with fair skin, selecting a sunscreen that provides effective protection while also imparting a natural tanning effect is crucial. This helps avoid discomfort and damage from sunburn while achieving a healthy bronzed complexion.

  4. Best Sunless Tanning Lotion for Fair Skin: Tailored for lighter skin tones, choosing the best sunless tanning lotion for fair skin is vital. This ensures a natural and even tanning effect without appearing too dark or unnatural.

  5. Best Tanning Lotion for Sensitive Skin: For those with sensitive skin, choosing a gentle tanning lotion is essential. Ensure the product formula is mild and non-irritating, allowing for effective tanning without discomfort or allergic reactions.

  6. Best Daily Tanning Lotion: To maintain a long-lasting bronzed complexion, selecting a tanning lotion suitable for daily use is crucial. This ensures your skin maintains a healthy tan year-round without worrying about the tanning effect fading.

  7. Best Quick Tanning Lotion: If you desire a deep tan in a short time, opting for a quick tanning lotion is the best choice. This allows you to achieve your desired bronzed complexion rapidly without waiting too long.

  8. Best Tanning Lotion for Holiday: During vacations, choosing a tanning lotion specially designed for holiday use is essential. This ensures you maintain a healthy bronzed complexion throughout your vacation, whether at the beach or engaging in outdoor activities.

  9. Best Tanning Mist: For those who prefer using mists, selecting an efficient tanning mist allows for even application of tanning products, quickly achieving the desired bronzed complexion.

  10. Gradual Tan Face Moisturizer and Body Lotion: For those who prefer a gradual tan, choosing gradual tan face moisturizer and body lotion is ideal. These products gradually increase skin pigmentation over time, providing a natural tan while keeping the skin hydrated and moisturized.

  11. Sunless Tanning Oil: Some prefer using sunless tanning oil as it can be used in water without fading. This is a convenient option for those who enjoy beach or pool activities.

By selecting tanning products suitable for your skin type and preferences, you can achieve your desired bronzed complexion while protecting your skin and enjoying the summer sun and outdoor activities to the fullest!

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.