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What is DHA? We give you the glow-down

What is DHA? We give you the glow-down

If you’re a fan of self-tanning, you’ve no doubt heard of DHA. Maybe you’re even vaguely aware that it’s the key ingredient responsible for giving the skin its golden glow. But do you know what DHA actually IS? And have you ever wondered how it magically changes the colour of your skin in just a couple of hours? 

Well, now you need wonder no more! Together with our Product Scientist, Alexa Dinant, we’ve done a deep dive into DHA tanning to answer these questions – and then some. Read on to learn everything you need to know about self-tanning’s star ingredient, including the best type to choose for a beautifully bronzed bod, with zero orange tones.

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

DHA stands for dihydroxyacetone – the active ingredient in most self-tanning products. “A sugar derived active produced by a natural fermentation process, DHA reacts with amino acids in dead skin cells in the surface layer of the skin,” Alexa explains. “A chemical reaction takes place and compounds called melanoidins are formed. These brown pigments colour the skin in a way that mimics a tan.” Clever, huh?

(Bonus fact for cooking fans: The process described above is dubbed the
Maillard reaction, and it’s the same chemical reaction that turns your baked goods golden and grilled meats brown. It also gives these browned foods their distinctive taste. And smell – but more on that later.)

How long does it take for DHA to work? And how long do results last?

Wonder why you can’t shower for at least 2 hours after fake tanning? This is because natural DHA’s effects take around 2-4 hours to kick in. Even after washing away your guide colour, colour will continue to develop for up to 72 hours. So, it’s often a good idea to fake tan at least 24 hours before a big event!

Because your skin is continually turning over and you’re constantly shedding dead skin cells, a sunless tan will typically last around 5-7 days. Exfoliating and exercising can make it fade faster (but not if you follow our tips for working out without the fade out!), while moisturising will keep your glow going.

Can DHA make your skin go orange?

Yes, DHA tanning lotion can make your skin appear orange – but hold tight before you toss it! Unnatural orange shades typically occur as a result of oversaturation, which is a simple way of saying you’re applying too much DHA on your skin or leaving it on for too long!

When choosing a self-tanner, it’s crucial to choose the right shade for your skin tone. Most self-tanning foams and lotions contain between 3-5% DHA1. Darker formulations contain a higher concentration of it, which can appear muddy or – horror of horrors – orange when applied to pale skins. Our advice? Always err on the side of caution and don’t go too dark when you’re new to fake tanning.  

Prep is essential too, especially exfoliation. DHA clings to dry skin like nobody’s business, so it’s important you slough off the dead stuff to prevent a patchy, orange-tinted tan. Also make sure you remove all traces of tan before reapplying, as layering tan-on-tan is a recipe for disaster. You’ve been warned. 

Does it always have to stink so much? 

There’s no getting around it, some self-tanners can really pong as they develop. This is because of that chemical reaction between the DHA and the skin. Remember how we said this Maillard reaction gives bread and baked goods their lovely golden colour? Well, it also contributes to their aroma. No surprises then that many describe the telltale smell of fake tanner as yeasty or biscuity…

While darker tanners usually smell more since they contain more DHA, the quality of your tanning lotion will also make a BIG difference. Choose a top-notch tanning product with glowing customer reviews, like our Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam. With a tropical mango and guava scent (no biscuit smell here!), it’s the world’s first anti-ageing, 100% natural DHA self-tan with full skincare benefits. And zero nasties.


Is DHA safe?   

If you’re worried your faux glow habit could be doing you harm, don’t be. External application of DHA in lotions and foams is approved by the FDA*, while the American Academy of Dermatology recommends self-tanners as a safer alternative to sun tanning. Just remember, though, that a fake tan doesn’t give you any added UV protection! 

Concerned about suggestions high amounts of DHA may be linked to free radical production? Protect the skin with a high-level, broad-spectrum sunscreen and always choose an antioxidant-packed tanning formula, such as Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam. 

While well-tolerated by most, DHA and other tanning ingredients can potentially cause irritation in individuals with dry skin conditions or ultra-sensitive skin. Therefore, a patch test is always recommended. 

Finally, if you have any questions about bronzing with a bump, our Can I Use Self-Tanners While Pregnant article has you covered!

* Spray tanning is a slightly different story as there’s some debate surrounding the inhalation of DHA that may occur. However, more research is required and the verdict is still out.

  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!


Written by: Pip Jarvis

Edited By: Vidhya


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