What is Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in Self Tanner?

What is DHA feature

By Ashlyn Noah
April 8, 2022

When you are putting products like self tanners into your skincare routine, you probably should know what chemicals and additives your body is coming into contact with.

While self tanning products have made it possible to avoid tanning beds, sun exposure, and spray tans, there are still chemicals in these formulas that can be harmful to the skin.

Dyes, parabens, and other nasty additives that are banned in other countries make up most of the leading self-tanning brands. 

However, the main active ingredient in self-tanners, Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is studied and safe! 

We’re here to tell you about Dihydroxyacetone, a chemical most self tanners use and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

What Is DHA?

Dihydroxyacetone, abbreviated as DHA, is a carbohydrate and color additive that is used to help tan the skin. The use of DHA and its subsequent reaction with skin cells is what causes a tan on the skin by creating a darker tint in the topmost layer. 

When a self tanner containing DHA is used, the colorless sugar blending with skin cells forms amino acids and melanoidins, also known as Maillard reaction free radicals, and forms a brown pigment. 

Most self tanner formulations contain DHA, but are also blended with other fragrances and chemicals, which can cause skin reactions to certain individuals if they are not careful. Additionally, many of these additives are known toxins and carcinogens.

That’s why we formulated Naru Organics self-tanner, which gives you the bronze glow from DHA, with only organic and naturally-derived ingredients. No dyes, no weird fragrance, no nasties. 

DNA damage can occur when DHA is used in self tanner since it has been known to alter genetics in some of its users, but most of the damage from DHA comes from when it penetrates farther below the first layer of skin.

What makes sunless bronzers so safe is that it does not go below the top layer of skin like UV rays from the sun and tanning beds do. Self tanners absorb into the first layer of skin, which is why they only last 5-7 days.

What Is The Problem With Dihydroxyacetone?

Using a self tanning lotion, cream, or mousse is likely to not cause any of the genetic alterations or cancer since it does not penetrate far into the skin.

However, it’s the spray tans and spray-on self tanners where scientists are seeing these occurrences. 

For the most part, DHA is rather safe to use and is the leading active ingredient in sunless tanning products approved by the FDA. The problem is when top-selling brands add in other chemicals to mix with DHA.

Most popular self tanning products add in other dyes that mess with sensitive skin and worsen contact dermatitis once the product is on the first layer of the skin’s surface known as the epidermis. 

The best way to avoid having a reaction and to use a completely safe product is to look for self tanning products like Naru, which uses organic and skin-friendly ingredients. 

tan blonde woman smiling

Is Self Tanning Bad For Your Skin?

Self tanning is excellent for your skin if it’s done in the right way! Tanning outside or in tanning beds can lead to melanoma, a form of skin cancer, or cause your skin to age and wrinkle faster if you frequently visit the tanning bed or avoid wearing sunscreen. 

Sunless tanners help you to achieve a natural-looking sun-kissed glow without harmful sun exposure or ultraviolet exposure from tanning beds.

There are dermatologist recommendations for self tanning products to help you build a gradual tan once you find a healthy and natural product to use.

How To Use Self Tanners

The first step in using a self tanner is to remove dead skin cells and have a clean canvas for the product to work with.

Self tanning is an art you will quickly learn once you’ve found a product you like and learn how to apply it correctly.

You may notice once you start using self tanning products that they do not last as long as actual sun tans. That’s because your dead skin cells end up holding the color the DHA creates and it will wash off eventually.

Before you start using your product, you will need to exfoliate your skin in the shower to remove dirt and buildup in your pores.

This will also give more skin for the product to absorb without you worrying about it wearing off fast. 

You do want to put on your self tanning product just to take a shower a few hours after because it takes a while for the DHA to activate.

The basic rule of thumb for using a self tanning product is to apply it at night or in the morning before you go to work to give it plenty of time to set on the skin.

You should also avoid doing anything that involves swimming or sweating for at least 6 to 8 hours since water can make the product dry in streaks or wash it off completely. And the last thing anyone wants is a streaky, messed-up tan. 

Does DHA Protect From Sun?

Advice for using self tanners containing DHA: you still need to wear your sunscreen!

​Some self tanners will have SPF in their formula, but self tanning products are not a substitute for regular sun exposure protection.

You can still get a sunburn from using a self tanner product and lounging around outdoors. You can also use self tanners with sunscreen or actual outdoor tanning lotion, just do not forget to add SPF to the mix!

Avoiding to properly protect your skin from the ultraviolet rays can cause the skin damage you are seeking to avoid by using self tanning products.

Will DHA Cause Orange Discoloration?

Many users of self tanner products are afraid of the unattractive discoloration from the horror stories they’ve heard.

It should be comforting to know that spray tanning booths are where the majority of those end up with an Oompa Loompa tint. Since there are various forms of self tanners on the market to choose from, you should not run into any discoloration problems. 

DHA itself is not the cause of the burnt-orange color that comes from using a self tanning product. That is from using too much product, or dyes and additives that warp the color. 

Naru Organics self-tanner was crafted to give a natural looking bronze glow that won’t stain your hands or your sheets. 

When you are shopping for a self tanning product to use, it’s important to find the right shade for your skin tone, and be mindul that what you choose is not full of harmful ingredients.

Also, if you use a traditional self-tanner, especially leading brands, and forget to wear a tanning mitt while rubbing on the product, or forget to wash your hands after each application, you can expect to see the orange leftovers. Naru self-tanner doesn’t require a mitt due to its streak free formula! 

If you realize you accidentally applied too much product (side note, it will happen), simply take a damp washcloth or cotton ball and buff the product out of the skin. 

You should expect to see self tanners with DHA take effect 8-24 hours after the first use. The color of the shade will continue to darken the more you use the product and stay consistent in its application. 

Is DHA Safe?

If you are still worried about using a self tanner containing DHA, then browse for products like Naru Organics that uses natural ingredients.

Overall, DHA is pretty safe to use and was found by the American Academy of Dermatology as the leading active ingredient to for sunless tanning. 

When you are using a self tanning product that contains DHA, there are ways to take extra safety precautions to make sure the use is more healthy. For example, avoid spreading the product near your lips where mucous membranes are so that you do not ingest the carbohydrate. 

The Bottom Line

Sun protection is important to have in sunless tanning, but you should also work to keep your body safe from the use of harsh chemicals.

Self tanners are great alternatives to looking as if you just got back from a beach vacation without the skin damage of ultraviolet rays. However, if you want to avoid dumping tons of problematic toxins and questionable ingredients on your skin, be sure to read the packaging. 

Or, skip all that ruckus, and get yourself a bottle of naturally-derived nontoxic Naru Organics self-tanner instead. 

Ashlyn Noah

Ashlyn Noah is an author in the skin care industry.