Morsani College of Medicine

Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery

Sunless Tanners


Sunless Tanners

Get the Skinny on Sunless Tanners

Long gone are the days of slathering baby oil and iodine on your skin and baking in the sunshine like a chicken on a kebab.  Even though being pale was once considered a sign of health and beauty, present day media now perceives ‘the tan’ as in vogue.  Unfortunately, what the media and the general public do not understand is that tanning is evidence of skin damage.   Melanin is a pigment which lies in the skin and is responsible for the brown color of your tan.  Melanin production increases with sun exposure and dissipates UV radiation as a means to protect you from skin cancer formation.  With age, the amount of melanin decreases and this shift can leave you with more and more burns.

Fake Bake

Through the years, research has supported evidence that the sun’s rays contribute to skin cancers and premature aging.  More recently, you may have heard about sunscreen regulation changes and the importance of broad spectrum products.  With the growing body of knowledge we have regarding the purpose of melanin and the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays, the general consensus of most dermatologists is to take a rain check on roasting in the sun.

So how can you get a bronzed glow without the risk of skin cancers?

We certainly do not condone tanning beds (aka cancer in a box), but we do support the use of many other products available over the counter.  Many people use cosmetic bronzers or spray tans.  Others prefer sunless tanners which work with the body’s natural processes to develop a tan.

How do sunless tanners work?

Sunless tanners contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA).  DHA is a safe and nontoxic chemical that was once used as a sugar substitute but was accidentally found to have tanning properties. When DHA is applied to the skin, a chemical reaction occurs with proteins in which the end result is a chromophore known as melanoidin– this will give a brown color. The chemical reaction process known as the Maillard reaction typically takes a few hours and results in darkening of the skin.  Luckily, the Maillard reaction is only seen in the most superficial layer of the skin, and therefore, the ‘tan’ can be easily removed with exfoliation or allowed to fade over days.

What do I need to know about sunless tanners and their application?

Sunless tanners are a safe and effective way to achieve a sun kissed look without the price of skin cancer.  They are easy to apply with the use of gloves, and many are combined with a dye so that areas where the tanner has been applied can be seen.  When applying sunless tanner, be sure to rub less onto areas with thicker skin such as the knees or elbows.  Since DHA is absorbed into the superficial layers, these thicker areas will absorb more DHA and cause darker pigmentation.  Most importantly, sunless tanners will NOT protect you from the sun like natural tans from melanin do.  So be sure to still apply your broad spectrum sunscreen every time you are in the sun!

Does the USF Health Cosmetic & Laser Center carry any sunless tanners?

Yes we do! We carry Fake Bake® in our office.  It comes with a handy application glove and is a favorite amongst our staff! Come by our office and pick up a bottle to try for yourself!

By: Erika Dare, ARNP-C, Dermatology and Cosmetic Practitioner at the USF Health Cosmetic and Laser Center on Davis Islands

Erika Dare, ARNP-C

Erika Dare, ARNP-C


American Academy of Dermatology. (2010). Prepping for fall dances shouldn’t increase skin cancer risk. Retrieved from

Z.D., Draelos. (2013). Sunless tanning: An alternative to sun exposure. Best Practices in Cosmetic Dermatology, 0(2), 10-11. Retrieved from