Spray Tanning and How It Works

It’s very important to understand first of all how fake tan works with your skin.  A spray tanning solution is made up of a set of ingredients which include the all important key ingredient DHA – dihydroxyacetone

DHA or Dihydroxyacetone is a colourless sugar that interacts with the dead cells located in the stratum corneum of the epidermis. As the sugar interacts with the dead skin cells, a colour change occurs. This change usually lasts about five to seven days from the initial application.

Every day, millions of dead skin cells are sloughed off or worn away from the surface of your skin.  In fact, every 35 to 45 days, you have an entirely new epidermis. This is why tans from sunless or self-tanning lotions will gradually fade – as the dead cells are worn away, so does your tan.

Most sunless tanning products use Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), as the active tanning ingredient. DHA is a skin safe sugar derivative, which has been used in the cosmetic industry for over 30 years.


DHA interacts with the outermost, surface skin layer, producing a golden brown colour that resembles the coloration of a UV based tan. DHA reacts with the naturally occurring amino acids and keratin proteins, in the skin cells resting on the skin surface. This process is called the “Maillard Reaction”. It is very similar to the reaction that you see when you cut a potato or an apple slice, and leave it exposed to the air. Skin colouration can take anytime from two to six hours and may last anywhere from four to seven days depending on the skin type, DHA concentration in the solution, and the degree of aftercare performed by the client.

DHA was first discovered as a skin colouring agent by German scientists back in the 1920’s but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that further research was carried out into this particular trait for those suffering from Vitiligo and they discovered that DHA did not penetrate the stratum corneum and was safe to be used.

In the EU we are governed by the Cosmetics Regulations and they have very strict requirements for testing all cosmetic products.  The EU regulations often differ from those in the USA which are governed by the FDA, so when you see news reports or scare stories in the Press which refer to the FDA it means nothing in the EU.  The EU regulations are often more stringent than those of the FDA.

For all sunless solutions or self tan products the main ingredient is water, in fact the first four or five ingredients pretty much give you an idea of the make up of your product.  The other ingredients in the formulation include moisturisers, stabilizers  and preservatives.  The quality of the ingredients and their grade also play a part in the end result.  Cheaper, lower grade ingredients will inevitably leave you with a product with a shortened shelf life and also your sunless tan will not last as long as others with more moisturisers in their formulation.  DHA itself is naturally drying on the skin, so if the product you use doesn’t have much in the way of moisturisation then it is likely it wont last as long as one which does.  Also bare this in mind when you are spraying your clients with a higher % DHA product.  The more DHA the more drying, and therefore even more important to make sure the client moisturises.

Storage of your sunless tanning solutions is very important.  Always store in a cool place out of direct sunlight as excessive temperatures and daylight will degrade your solution.  Storage in the fridge can help but don’t freeze your solutions.

There is some controversy as to who was the first to use an airbrush system with a tanning product.  Starr Hamson and Tracy Diamond are the two people involved. They worked together in their face painting business and were friends.  Tracy discovered she had skin cancer and in order to maintain a golden tan minus the UV exposure she experimented with using her airbrush kit to spray her face.  From there the rest is history and Starr Hamson started Fantasy Tan.  Nowadays we have a wide range of machines with which to spray, from compressors to turbines, HVLP and LVLP and auto booth sprayers.

Check out some of our other posts on spray tanning tips for professionals

Retro spray tan machine

Airbrush spray tan machine

For more info on DHA check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydroxyacetone

Learn more about Unreal Spray Tanning Solutions


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