Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) for Skin Care & Tanning Explained

woman tanning

First of all, what is dihydroxyacetone? Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA as it’s more commonly referred to, is a colorless sugar compound that is derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. Although a naturally occurring ingredient, it is also sometimes synthetically produced.

Being synthetically produced does not automatically mean that it is a bad thing though, as producing it synthetically is often the more ethical and sustainable method because growing, harvesting, transporting, etc. aren’t required and no strain gets put on the environment through the process.

It’s actually the only ingredient approved by The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for self-tanner and is the only way to achieve a tan without damage from UV rays.  

How Does DHA Darken the Skin?

The browning effects of DHA were discovered by accident, way back in the 1930s when there had been attempts to treat diabetes with oral doses of DHA which resulted in discoloring of the patients’ gums.

Several scientific studies later, the way DHA is able to temporarily darken the skin is known as the Maillard reaction. It is also known as non-enzymatic browning and it occurs in cooking as well, such as meat turning brown when cooked.

Essentially, the Millard reaction is a chemical reaction between sugars and amino acids.

As we know, DHA is a sugar derivative, and when it interacts with the amino acids in skin cells it causes the production of Melanoidins – high molecular weight heterogeneous polymers that gradually create the appearance of a tan.

This reaction can only occur in the very top layer of the skin, the epidermis, and since the skin is constantly replenishing itself and shedding off dead skin cells. Given this, the general rule of thumb is that self-tanner or spray tans only last about 5-7 days from a single application.

Despite this, there are plenty of things that you can do to help your skin hold onto the pigment for longer, such as keeping it hydrated, and then ways to help remove dead skin cells to refresh the skin such as exfoliating.

For more on this check our article – how long does a spray tan last.

Is DHA Safe?

As mentioned earlier, DHA is the only ingredient approved by the FDA for self-tanning and spray tanning and it is the least damaging way to tan in comparison to UV tanning (such as sun tanning or tanning beds).

There are some rare skin types that are sensitive to DHA lotion, about two in every 100,000 to be more precise. Therefore, doing a patch test is worth considering though chances are you should be fine. If you have sensitive skin it’s a good idea to do a patch test in particular.

Unlike more severe allergies, such as with eggs or peanuts, the only possible dihydroxyacetone side effects are skin irritation and itchiness.

Moreover, it would be best to use dihydroxyacetone tanning at night, when there’s no risk of exposure to UV rays. The reason for this is that the Maillard reaction between amino acids and DHA generates reactive oxygen species, an unstable molecule, that may attack cell structures. This process is further accelerated under solar radiation.

DHA-treated skin can have as much as 180% additional free radicals generated during sun exposure, according to this study.

In addition, using forms other than sprays are preferred because although DHA is approved by the FDA for topical use, it can be bad when inhaled or used near mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth). Hence, the use of DHA in spray tanning booths has not been approved by the FDA.

Related Questions

What Does Dihydroxyacetone Do to Your Skin?

DHA creates a chemical reaction in the epidermis (the top layer of your skin) between the sugar it contains and the amino acids in your skin cells, triggering the production of Melanoidins which gradually create the appearance of a tan until those skin cells then die and fall off.

Is Dihydroxyacetone a Carcinogen?

If DHA enters the bloodstream, it does have the potential to cause gene mutation which could then lead to the development of cancers. It is possible for dihydroxyacetone skin care to enter the bloodstream if inhaled and so you should be careful when opting for a spray tan.

Does DHA Damage Skin?

Some of the concerns that have been flagged revolving around DHA have been covered in this article, in the section where we question whether DHA is safe or not.

At the end of the day, tanning only became trendy in the 1920s thanks to Coco Chanel, and since then significant progress has been made with DHA tanning products, solving issues as time passes.

Is Dihydroxyacetone Toxic?

No, DHA is a non-toxic substance and is approved by the FDA for self-tanner.

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