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How do self tans work?

How do self tans work?

They’re the glow-giving staple of our beauty routines, but exactly how do self-tans work? Which ingredients help create the perfect (faux) sun-kissed hue – and how? And why do some fake tans smell so bad, or go an unnatural shade of orange?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, now’s the time to face the fake tan facts. This article breaks down the science behind self-tanning products, and gives you all the info you need to start tanning like a pro. Don’t hit the (tanning) bottle without it!


What’s the tanning ingredient in self-tanning products?

The active ingredient in self-tanners and spray tans is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. A simple sugar, DHA is, in fact, colourless. However, when applied topically, it interacts with amino acids in the skin and a chemical reaction occurs. Brown compounds called melanoidins are produced, resulting in a permanent* darkening of the outer layer of the skin (stratum corneum).

Known as the maillard reaction, the gradual bronzing begins around 2 hours after applying self-tanner, and continues for 24-72 hours. (Yup, that’s up to 3 days, maths wizards!)

This browning phenomenon also occurs in the kitchen – giving foods like chargrilled steak and baked bread their distinctive colour and delicious flavour. However, don’t go getting ideas about nibbling on your fake-tanned arm ;)

Is DHA in tanning products natural?

Typically, the DHA used in self-tanners is synthetic. However, with consumers becoming increasingly concerned about chemicals in skincare, some manufacturers are going natural. Common sources of naturally-derived DHA include sugar beets and cane sugar.

As for Coco & Eve? In our Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam we’ve used natural tanning agents to create the world’s first 100% natural DHA self-tan body treatment with full skincare benefits! You’re welcome.

Why do self-tanners smell so funky?

Now you know what’s behind the tanning effect, you’re probably wondering what causes the strong biscuit smell of so many self-tanners. Unfortunately, it’s a not-so-pleasant by-product of the chemical reaction that progressively ‘tans’ your skin. Darker tans which contain more DHA will often pong more, and the degree to which you smell like baked goods will also depend on your own body chemistry. 

The good news? Clever use of fragrance can help counteract the telltale smell as your tan develops. In Sunny Honey, we use tropical mango and guava to completely neutralise any unwanted odours – and whisk you away to paradise!

Why do fake tans only last a week?

Remember when we said DHA causes a permanent darkening of the skin? It wasn’t a typo. So, if this is the case, why do self-tans only last around a week?

The answer lies in the skin’s natural turnover process. DHA alters the colour of the outer layer of skin only – the stratum corneum – which contains many layers of dead skin cells. As these cells are dislodged, either through the natural shedding process or exfoliation and hair removal, your tan effectively washes down the drain. Bye, tan, bye.


What causes an orange self-tan? 

Orange tans happen to the very best of us, and are caused both by incorrect usage and application, and dodgy tanning formulas. 

Since an Oompa Loompa tan is never a good look, there are a few things best avoided if you want a naturally bronzed complexion. For starters, avoid applying too much product at once, or too many layers of self-tanner, as this can result in an orange hue. Similarly, choosing a shade much darker than your skintone is a recipe for an orange-hued disaster. (Sunny Honey comes in 3 different shades – each formulated with the optimal amount of DHA for natural results for your skin ☺)

To prevent your tan from over-developing and turning orange, it’s important you also follow the directions and rinse off when instructed. Longer is not always better. And neither is darker if it’s not a colour born in nature! Check out our list of 7 Self-Tanning Fails and how you can best avoid them. 

As for your tanning formula, bypass those with low-grade ingredients to avoid an artificial looking hue. And thinking green is always a good idea. A green-grey base, like that in our Bali Bronzing Foam, is your best bet to cancel out even the slightest hint of orange tones!

Do self-tans provide sun protection?

The answer is a resounding, ‘No!’ While fake tans are undoubtedly safer than spending time outdoors sunbaking, never be fooled into thinking your faux glow provides protection. It doesn’t and you should be as vigilant with sun protection as ever!  

Tanned & Tested

Don’t just take our word for it, take a look at these real results from real people! 


Being German and Irish my skin never tanned easily. As I got older, I realised If I want to be tan it’s not happening naturally! That’s when I turned to self tanners for a healthy alternative to the sun. I like adding variety to my appearance by creating different looks and Sunny Honey does exactly that. ✨


I used @cocoandeve #sunnyhoney dark self tanner today for the first time and obsessed is an understatement. i’ve never used a self tanner that smells AMAZING but goes on without any streaks!! & don’t forget about them being cruelty and gluten free! Ditch the orange, go tan!!

Check out more tan tips & tricks 


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Written by: Pip Jarvis

Edited By: Vidhya

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28 May, 2020

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