3.2 The science behind the sunless tan

As we learned earlier, the magic of a sunless tan occurs when the DHA reacts with the epidermis, primarily the stratum corneum layer. You might be thinking, what happens when you have higher or lower strengths of DHA? On the market today, tanning solutions will have a range of strengths, and these are indicated by a percentage. Most products will have a DHA concentration range anywhere from 5% to 18%, and the lower the percentage means, the lighter the colouration depth will be, and of course, the higher the percentage, the darker the colour will be. So, as a general guide, you will tend to use lower concentrated DHA formulas on light skin tones and higher concentrations on dark skin tones. In addition to DHA, there are numerous other ingredients that are used in tanning solution, let’s take a look!

Overview of common tanning solution ingredients

Using a high-quality spray tan solution is essential for you to provide flawless tan applications and is also crucial for ensuring repeat business, improving your reputation and for the overall profitability of your business. High quality doesn’t always mean ‘high cost of goods to you’. With thorough research, you will be able to source suppliers that provide quality tanning solutions that do not eat into your own profits! There are key factors you need to consider to determine what a high-quality spray tan solution is. When purchasing from any spray tan brand, you need to ask:

  1. Where do you source the DHA used in your spray tan products?
  2. Do you use ‘pre-blended bronzers in your spray tan products, or do you make your own bronzers at the point of manufacturing?

If a brand is not forthcoming with this information or is not sure of the answers, then you can also ask for the product Safety Data (MSDS) sheet. We will cover safety data sheets in more detail in a later module. Many salons and professionals these days will not use or sell products that do not provide this data, as it is absolutely essential you know and understand every single ingredient in the tanning solutions you use. This will not only ensure you are using top quality products but will also protect against false claims and synthetically sourced ingredients that often cause irritations or, in some instances, long term side effects to a client.

DHA is generally sourced from 3 main areas globally – France, Germany and China. Typically, French and German DHA is of the highest quality because they are derived from fruits and natural sources. Due to the higher concentration of natural ingredients, these tend to be the most consistent in creating and maintaining faux tan, and they rarely have any variations in results or quality. Chinese sourced DHA is almost always synthetic. This means consistency in quality varies across many manufacturers, and you get mixed results. Additionally, you will notice more issues around skin irritations and skin reactions with synthetic DHA.

Most brands won’t disclose the source of their DHA unless you ask because this is not a sexy marketing strategy! When you are purchasing products or equipment, you must try to avoid getting caught up in the marketing hype of a product and really look at exactly what you are purchasing. Some brands may not know where the DHA is sourced because they may not be involved in each step of the manufacturing process. Therefore, it is always best to select brands and suppliers that can provide you with all of the information you need to ensure flawless results each and every time.

Key phrase | Erythrulose: Erythrulose is a ketone sugar found naturally in raspberries and is an ingredient commonly found in sunless tanning products because it has a pale-yellow to reddish colour (natural dye), which helps to achieve a more reliable and promising tan application.

Erythrulose is the second most ingredient used in the majority of self-tanning products because, just like DHA, when it reacts to the amino acids in the skin, it helps to produce a brownish tint. When combined with DHA, it provides a more cosmetically pleasing colour, and it also helps prolong the tan and the tan fading process. Products with both DHA and Erythrulose will usually have ‘DHA/E’ on them. Erythrulose works slower than DHA and is not as drying to the skin. It can sometimes be used by itself but will result in a lighter coloured tan.

Because DHA is an acetone, it does have a drying effect on the skin, so every manufacturer will add a range of ingredients to counter act this effect and to add moisturising, nourishing and anti-ageing properties to the self-tanning solution as an added bonus. The table below outlines a range of common ingredients you will find in tanning solutions, with the applicable impacts they have on the skin:

DHANearly all tanning solutions will contain DHA, although there are some solutions that are DHA free that can be perfect for you to practice with. DHA free solutions (or training solutions) deliver a similar look and feel to a spray tan but easily washed off. These can also be used for clients who may be allergic to DHA.
ErythruloseErythrulose is often blended with DHA to help achieve an even application and also helps the overall tan tone to be richer and deeper. Depending on the client’s natural skin, products that also include Erythrulose can cause the tan fade rate to be slower and less patchy. Erythrulose generally takes 2 to 3 days to develop the colour, where as DHA takes 8 to 24 hours to completely darken.
Aloe VeraAloe vera exists in almost all sunless tanning products because it is an excellent source of hydration. In addition to this, aloe vera is a traditional plant source used for skin healing, so it helps the skin to absorb the solution without allergies. It is also used because it can be a great product blender and can mask many other ingredients.
Phenethyl AlcoholPhenethyl Alcohol is used in so many products, from shampoos, lipsticks, deodorants and creams. The reason products use Phenethyl Alcohol is because it is a preservative and fragrance ingredient and tends to have a floral and sweet odour.
Witch HazelWitch hazel is a plant with powerful medicinal properties and is found in some tanning solutions because it can have potent antioxidant properties and also can reduce inflammation. It can also help to tighten pores, fight acne and can help with razor bumps. Be sure to check the percentage of Witch Hazel, though, because too much can also irritate the skin.
Multi vitamins and enriched botanicalsAny product that is left on the body for any period of time has an opportunity to enrich the skin and the skin condition. Botanical derived ingredients, vitamins and natural oils are a great source of skin finish for a sunless tan; they also enhance the client’s initial experience and will create a point of difference for you with every client. Vitamins typically include Vitamin A, C & E and rich and enriched botanicals are derived from herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, leaves or seeds.
Rich, lavish nourishing oilsThe right kind of oils can enhance the absorption of sunless tans as well as aiding their longevity. Many products promote the use of such oils, yet they still clog pores and oversaturate skin. This can create uneven results that tend to come off patchy and can cause your client breakouts! If a tan is blended correctly, then cosmetic grade oils can enhance the skin condition and prolong the life of a tan. Examples of oils used include, but are not limited to argan, rosehip, manuka, avocado, coconut, hempseed and jojoba.
Food colour and dye’sFood colouring and dyes are often included in tanning solutions as they are designed to stain the skin and control the result (usually for brand purposes). This is how colour bases are created, and many brands use dye’s to ensure a particular result for each client to ensure the result is always the same. This may seem like a good thing to a brand; however, it takes the unique characteristics out of the sunless tanning process. Sunless tanning reacts in every body’s skin individually. This means that when a brand uses dye’s to artificially create a result after a sunless tan, the true result isn’t seen. Essentially it is designed so that everybody’s skin looks the same or similar in the same product.
AquaAqua or water is the largest component of any tanning product. Purified water is essential when considering any tanning product. The balance of purified water means your products remain consistent in storage. If you notice that a bottle of product changes its look in storage, such as the colour of the bronzer consistency when spraying from the same bottle, this is often a cause of a manufacturer not using purified cosmetic grade water. Always be on the lookout for these inconsistencies, as they ultimately dictate your relationships with your clients and the success of your business.

The ingredients above are not exhaustive but should give you an idea of the sorts of typical ingredients to look out for. Cosmetic chemistry is a science in itself, so you are not expected to know every single ingredient off by heart. So, if you are unsure of what an ingredient is, you can:

  • Ask your supplier
  • Read the ingredients on the packaging
  • Request the safety data sheet (SDS)
  • Use good old google!

As an example, let’s take a look at the AED exclusive Cocotan pro mist solution. Look at each of the ingredients, and research any that you do not know:

  • Water (Aqua Eau)
  • Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Water
  • Dihydroxyacetone
  • Dimethyl Isosorbide
  • Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Extract
  • Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice
  • Alcohol Denat.
  • Glycerin
  • Erythrulose
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Terminalia Ferdinandiana (Kakadu Plum) Fruit Extract
  • Caramel
  • Prunus Avium (Sweet Cherry) Seed Oil
  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
  • Caprylyl Glycol
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Argania Spinosa (Argan) Kernel Oil
  • Rosa Canina (Rosehip) Seed Oil
  • Polysorbate 20
  • Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil
  • Xanthan Gum
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Red 40 (CI 16035)
  • Yellow 5 (CI 19140)
  • Blue 1 (CI 42090)

By now, you have already learned that a natural tan works when the skin is exposed to UVA and UVB rays from the sun and spray tanning does not work in the same way and does not involve any reaction with melanin; the reaction occurs with DHA. DHA is clear in colour and, over time, can become sticky to touch. The brown colour you see when you apply spray tans is actually a tinted bronzer which is what will wash away when the client has a shower.

When DHA or Erythrulose solution is applied to the skin, the Maillard reaction occurs over the next 1 to 8 hours, which causes the skin to produce a temporary browning effect. The artificial tan immediately appears on the skin surface and will continue to darken over 24 hours, depending on the formulation. Once the darkening effect has occurred, the tan becomes waterproof and will not wash away with soap or water. It will fade gradually over 5 to 10 days, in conjunction with the skins normal exfoliation process.

Key phrase | Skin exfoliation: Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin. There are a range of tools and products to exfoliate the skin, which are generally categorised into mechanical (tools) and chemical (products).

We will cover pre-tan considerations later in this module, but as you learned earlier, for a tan application to be effective, clients must exfoliate 24 to 48 hours prior to tan application. This helps to ensure that dead skin scales are removed so that the tanning solution can be applied to a fresh layer of skin. That said, if your clients over-exfoliate, this can cause dryness and irritation in the skin, which will also result in a patchy and uneven tan! This is why we recommend clients exfoliate 24 to 48 hours before a tan so that the skin can properly absorb the solution. There are a range of methods that can be used to exfoliate the skin, which are listed below:

Mechanical exfoliationChemical exfoliation
– Exfoliating brush
– Exfoliation sponge
– Exfoliating gloves
– Exfoliating scrub
– Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids
– Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as beta hydroxyl and salicylic acid

You might be thinking that an exfoliating scrub is a chemical, right? Well, technically, it falls into mechanical exfoliation because the exfoliation occurs when you rub the scrub in with a circular motion, so the tool being your hand. You might find AHA’s and BHA’s in scrubs, but usually, chemical exfoliants require no rigorous motion, just a simple application, and they do their thing. BHA’s are usually best for people with acne-prone skin, and AHA’s are usually great for people with dry skin.

If you would like to learn more about skin exfoliation, access the resources linked:

Did you know:

  • Skin regenerates itself approximately every 28 days or four weeks.
  • Over a 24-hour period, you shed almost a million skin cells.
  • Between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells fall off every hour.
  • In one year, you’ll shed close to 12 million cells, which adds up to more than 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of dead skin.

Our bodies actually exfoliate themselves in a process called ‘desquamation’, where our skin cells naturally shed. This process contributes to the reason why spray tans will gradually fade within 5 to 10 days. If a client were to use a more aggressive form of exfoliation straight after a spray tan, this would destroy all of your hard work! In addition to desquamation, if your clients are in the water for a long time (swimming, hot baths and long showers) or have heavy perspiration, it can lighten the tan and contribute to ruining the longevity of the tan.

Given DHA usually takes a full 24 hours to fully develop (depending on the processing time stated on your tanning solution), clients should wait a minimum of 1-8 hours before showering. New research shows that leaving your tan on for 24 hours will give you a much deeper, darker longer lasting tan. This is obviously very inconvenient for users when the products contain bronzers and artificial dies that stain the skin. If you have ever suffered tanning solution transfer on thousand thread count sheets, you will know this pain all too well!

Most sunless products contain a cosmetic bronzer for an instant visual result. These days, you can actually get tanning solutions that are clear or completely free of colourings and dyes. Products without bronzers or dyes mean they contain DHA without any artificial colour guides, so there will be no immediate visual colour on the skin. With the absence of bronzer sand colourings, clients can leave it on for up to 24 hours without staining clothes, sheets or underwear. Many brides opt for this type of solution to ensure there is no transfer on expensive wedding dresses, shirt collars and expensive undergarments! Because there is no immediate need to shower them off, solutions free from bronzers and dyes typically last longer because they have a longer time to develop.

Another benefit of using tanning solution free of bronzer and dyes is that they are almost always ‘water soluble’, meaning that if there is a stain or transfer to clothing, sheets or materials (such as carpet or furniture), they will wash out with water so can be cleansed from most ordinary fabrics. However, silk, satin and lycra may not wash out, so it is always recommended to advise your client to wear dark loose clothing immediately after their tan.

Cosmetic bronzers

When starting out, many spray tanning technicians will opt for solutions that are infused without a cosmetic bronzer because it does make spraying the product on the skin easier to see. If using the right products, cosmetic bronzers are ideal for Fitness, Stage, Dance, runway and photoshoots prior to them even being washed off. This is what many in the industry will call a ‘top coat’ or ‘apply and wear’ product. In some cases, residual colour from the cosmetic bronzers may last on the skin for up to 3 days.

Tanning solution brands that promote ‘colour bases’ as a way of selling their products usually do contain artificial dyes to create this guide colour for marketing reasons. Purchase these products with caution because anyone selling multiple colour bases is really selling you the same product and only varying the artificial dye. This essentially tricks you into thinking the product is developing or applying differently! Some dyes they use can also stain the skin for 3 days giving a very subtle difference; however, the dye itself is damaging to the duration of the tan because they tend to dehydrate the skin.

Quality cosmetic bronzers will wash off with water and/or perspiration and will not stain the skin. When using cosmetic bronzer, advise your clients that the first wash after their tan should be a quick warm water rinse with no shower gels or soap! It is useful to explain that the first wash is to remove the cosmetic guide colour only, and any extended water contact may make their tan patchy or streaky. Given that DHA is still developing on the skin for up to 24 hours, and the longer you leave the tan on, the longer it will last, it can be useful to use less cosmetic bronzer to allow your client to wear the product longer without as many side effects or staining everything they touch!

If you see the words ‘pre-blended on bronzers, these are premixed bronzers that happen through a third party prior to the mixing phase of manufacturing a spray tan solution. When brands use ‘pre-blended bronzers, this is usually to use artificial ingredients which prolong shelf life or cut costs on manufacturing by outsourcing bronzer creation to a third party. As with many things in life, when businesses make a choice to cut costs, the client will suffer. This is absolutely the case when it comes to the use of ‘pre-blended bronzers!

Brands that use ‘pre-blended bronzers are noticeable in clients’ feedback, such as ‘itchiness’ when the tan is being worn, or they have a strong undertone of a particular ‘muddy’ looking colour at application. If you hear your clients say any of the following, these are key signs your tanning solution brand used a pre-blended bronzer:

  • My skin went a ‘weird colour’
  • My results are not consistent
  • My skin had breakouts or is irritated
  • The tanning solution left streaks or stains after my first shower

As a spray tanning technician, it is important to know when to use the right products for the right situations. It is essential that you educate your clients about the differences in ingredients and products as this will help to demonstrate that you not only use quality products, but it may also help them to understand any tanning fails they may have had in the past! Educating your clients enables you to showcase your professionalism, helps them to understand the magic of sunless tanning and will likely keep them coming back!

Did you know: Dead skill cells eventually fall off your body. The dust that collects on your tables, TV, windowsills, and picture frames around your home is made mostly from dead human skin cells. Your house is also filled with trillions of microscopic dust mites that eat your old dead skin.

If you are interested in learning more about cosmetic bronzers in spray tan solutions, access the resources linked:

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