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: MedicineNet.com]. 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.