How to Match Tanning Lotion to Skin Tone

Sunless tanning lotion works when a key ingredient reacts with surface skin cells. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
Sunless tanning lotion works when a key ingredient reacts with surface skin cells. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
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Do you love that warm, sun-kissed glow your skin gets after a day at the beach or pool? You might think a bronzed beach body looks healthy and youthful, but it's not. Tanned skin is actually a sign of damage, not health. The long-term effects of tanning include premature aging, wrinkling and a heightened risk of skin cancer. So, whether you tan indoors on a tanning bed or outdoors on a lounge chair, the damage and health risks increase as soon as your skin turns brown or -- even worse -- red.

Given that doctors diagnose approximately one million cases of skin cancer each year, getting a tan, or a sunburn, is a serious health matter [source: AOA]. The best ways to avoid sun damage are to stay out of the sun and to protect your skin by wearing sunscreen and covering up with wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts. But if you can't resist the lure of looking like you spent a week traveling in a tropical locale, there is a tanning alternative that avoids exposure to the sun altogether.


Using a sunless tanning, or self-tanning, lotion can give the appearance of time spent at the shore without the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays, such as sunburn or dry skin. It is important to note, however, that most of these products do not contain a sun-blocking agent, so you need to use sunscreen after application if you plan to spend time in the sun.

You should also be careful when choosing sunless tanning products. Some lotions are advertised as "tanning accelerators," which promise a faster natural tan from the sun. The manufacturers of such products claim that the lotions contain a natural enzyme that stimulates the production of melanin -- the substance that gives skin its color -- with sun exposure. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says these products are not effective, and might even be dangerous, because they don't block the sun's UV rays [source: Skin Site, FDA].

If you're ready to try tanning without the risks, read on for advice on how to choose self-tanning products and sunscreens based on your skin tone.


Tanning Lotion for Darker Skin Tones

Choosing a tanning lotion to match and enhance your skin tone might be as easy as reading the product label, but it's helpful to know why a product "gets under your skin." The active ingredient in sunless tanning products that gives skin a tanned appearance is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA darkens by reacting with dead skin cells in the epidermis, or the top layer of the skin. Skin darkened with DHA will gradually fade during the normal cycle of shedding dead cells, usually within a week of application [source: Mayo Clinic]. Some self-tanning products might contain smaller amounts of DHA because of its unpleasant smell, so consistent application over a longer period of time is sometimes recommended.

People with olive or darker skin tones, however, typically will not produce a darker tan from the use of these products. People with these skin tones produce more melanin than people with lighter skin tones. In fact, darker skin tones produce a specific type of melanin called eumelanin [source: O'Neil]. This acts as a sort of natural sunscreen, so these people do not burn as readily as people with lighter skin tones [source:]. However, if you have olive-toned or black skin, your skin can still get burned in strong or prolonged sun exposure.


Dermatologists recommend the daily use of a UVA/UVB sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 for all skin types [source: AAD]. The SPF number of a sunscreen indicates how long you can stay in the sun before your skin will burn. To calculate which level of SPF you should use, divide the number of minutes you want to stay in the sun by the number of minutes you can spend in the sun before burning. For example, if you want to spend three hours in the sun, or 180 minutes, and you can spend 30 minutes in the sun without burning, divide 180 by 30, which equals six. This number means that you will need a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 6 [source: AOA].

If you're fair-skinned yet long for a bronzed look without an orange afterglow, read on to find out about self-tanning products that might work best for you.


Tanning Lotion for Lighter Skin Tones

Sunless products are a good alternative to tanning under the sun for people with fair skin. If you choose to use a sunless or self-tanning lotion and are light-skinned, look for products that are specifically labeled for light to medium skin tones in order to avoid a tan that looks orange and unnatural. It's also important to follow the instructions to prevent streaks or blotches that might appear on the skin if the lotion is applied incorrectly.

Before applying sunless tanning lotion, thoroughly wash your skin to remove dead skin cells. You might also want to do a patch test on a small portion of skin to be sure you don't have a negative reaction. Also, it can help to use a moisturizer after bathing and before applying the tanning lotion. Use the lotion sparingly on dry or rough areas such as knees and elbows because sunless tanning lotions might appear darker in these areas [source: Brody]. To prevent dark streaks on your face, where the skin is lighter, consider using a bronzer there instead.


Even by following these tips, using a self-tanning lotion to get the tan that you want is a trial-and-error process. What might be the correct amount of sunless tanning lotion for one person could make another person's skin turn orange [source: Mann].

Light- or fair-skinned people often have difficulty tanning naturally and instead might burn and peel. This is partly because their skin creates a defective type of a certain protein needed to produce sufficient amounts of melanin [source: O'Neil]. Even so, people with fair skin who still would like to have a sun-kissed look must protect their skin.

While in the sun, light-skinned people who want to get a tan must be more careful than people with dark skin. Some dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a higher SPF than the suggested 15. Using a higher SPF means that it will take longer to get a tan from the sun, but sunburn and the associated dangers of UV exposure can be somewhat reduced. If you are fair-skinned, apply sunscreen lotion at least 30 minutes before going out into the sun.

For more information on alternative or self-tanning methods, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Alspaugh, Lara, RN. "Taking Precautions When Tanning." August 2, 2009.
  • American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "Skin of " 2008.
  • American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and American Cancer Society. "Tanning: the dangers of tanning." Health is Number One. 4/13/02.
  • Brody, Jane, E. "Is it possible to achieve a healthy glow that's truly healthy?" Taipei Times: NY Times News Service, New York. 6/9/2009.
  • Hecht, Barbara K., Ph.D. "DHA-Spray and Sunless Tanning Booths: What is DHA?" 8/7/2003
  • Mann, Denise. "Summer Buyers' Guide: Sunless Tanning Lotions." WebMD, Inc. 2005
  • Medical Staff Writers. "How Sunless Tanning Pills Work." 3/11/2008.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Sunless tanning: A safe alternative to sunbathing." Mayo Clinic Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). (Accessed 8/1/09)
  • "Definition of Melanin." (Accessed 8/2/2009)
  • O'Neil, Dennis. "Skin Color Adaptation." Palomar College Behavioral Sciences Department. March 25, 2009.
  • Skin Site. "Tanning Lotions." (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Sunscreens and Tanning." June 2008. (Accessed 8/17/2009)