Is Self-Tanner Safe, and Should You Be Wearing It Overnight?

    Plus, tips for preventing and getting rid of stains when the product makes it onto your bathmat and towels

    person pumping self tanning lotion onto a cloth glove
    A person applying a foaming self-tanner to a tanning mit.
    Photo: Adobe Stock

    Now that we know of the dangers of UV rays, the days of slathering ourselves in baby oil and basking in the sun are over (for many of us, at least). All it takes is a glance at the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Facts & Statistics to convince you that exposure to the sun isn’t worth the tan. According to the foundation’s website, more than 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and more than two people die of the disease every hour.

    More on Sun Protection

    But that sun-kissed aesthetic is still beloved by many, which is why the market for sunless tanners is expected to grow by about 45 percent by 2030. Sold as a lotion, foam, spray, or drops, sunless tanners work on skin tones of all kinds to give you a beach-vacation glow from the comfort of your own home. It’s all over social media too—tune into the beauty community on TikTok (459.2 million views), YouTube, or Instagram to find tutorials on everything from how to apply sunless tanner for an allover effect or use it strategically to contour your face and body. 

    As I’ve become a self-tanner devotee, I’ve often wondered, how does self-tanner work? And is it really safe to use? What should you do if you accidentally stain your clothes or sheets with it? I talked to some experts to find out.

    How Does Self-Tanner Work?

    Self-tanner isn’t just makeup. The bronze burnish that the product delivers occurs through a chemical process called the Maillard reaction. 

    "Self-tanner contains ingredients that react with proteins in the top layers of skin to create brown-colored substances called melanoidins," says Michelle Wong, PhD, a cosmetic chemist and blogger at Lab Muffin Beauty Science. This Maillard reaction is also what causes food like bread to turn brown during cooking, Wong says.

    The active ingredient in most self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), Wong says, but some products contain other active ingredients, such as erythrulose.

    Is Self-Tanner Safe?

    I tend to assume that most products on the shelves are safe, but working at Consumer Reports has shown me that that’s not always the case. So when my husband asked me if "this stuff" was harmful in any way, I had to investigate.

    "DHA has been shown to cause an increase in free radicals in the skin," says Chere Lucas Anthony, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Boca Raton, Fla. "This can contribute to skin aging as the free radicals break down collagen and elastin in the skin, which leads to wrinkling and skin aging."

    But Wong says it’s unlikely that any skin aging effect would be pronounced.

    "The human studies so far have found that DHA mostly reacts in the top layers of the skin, which are dead. In skin aging, the concern is excessive free radicals forming deeper in the dermal layers of skin where collagen and elastin are." 

    When it comes to spray tans—either at home or at a salon—inhalation is of greater concern, says Lucas Anthony. "Studies have shown that cell damage is worse with repeated inhalation.”

    The Food and Drug Administration advises protection from areas covered by mucous membranes. Lucas Anthony says that over time, cell damage caused by inhalation could trigger conditions such as asthma. 

    She recommends anyone getting a spray tan to wear a mask and to avoid spraying the face. As a safer alternative, she suggests using at-home lotions or drops for the face. "Just be sure to avoid the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, and around the eyes," she says.

    And, like anything else put onto the skin, sunless tanners can cause an allergic reaction. Before coating your body with it, Lucas Anthony advises putting a small amount of the tanner on the inside of the arm and waiting at least 24 hours to make sure that it doesn’t cause a rash. 

    Do You Still Need to Wear Sunscreen While Wearing Self-Tanner?

    In short, yes. Self-tanner does deliver an SPF rating of 3 to 4, Wong says, but the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people wear sun protection with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. 

    "There’s very preliminary evidence that suggests that UV exposure on skin that’s been freshly tanned can cause increased free radical production," Wong says, "so it’s a good idea to apply sunscreen directly after the tanner dries."

    Lucas Anthony suggests that those worried about skin aging due to self-tanner look for formulations that include antioxidants and sunscreen ingredients. She also recommends limiting sun exposure while wearing a fake tan and using self-tanner in moderation. 

    And Contouring With Self-Tanner?

    It’s safe, Wong assures me. She’s done it herself to enhance her abs for a dance competition. 

    Wong recommends using a self-tanning product with a guide color, "a coloring agent added to the product to give it an instant ‘tan’ color, so you can see it when you apply it."

    If you’re brave enough to try contouring your face with self-tanner, Lucas Anthony advises against trying it for the first time before a big event. 

    "The look will depend on evenness of application and some artistry," she says.

    How to Get Self-Tanner Out of Your Sheets, Clothes, Towels, or Bath Mat

    Look, it’s messy stuff. Sometimes it drips on the bath mat or a towel when you’re applying it. Sometimes it rubs off on sheets and clothes. That brown pigment is not the DHA, though, Wong points out. 

    "The active ingredients don’t usually stain since the color only develops after it reacts with proteins in skin," she says. It’s the coloring agent, or the "guide color" that’s the problem. 

    To avoid stains, Wong recommends using dark clothes and sheets just after applying fake tanner and showering before your skin comes in contact with light-colored fabric. 

    If your clothes or sheets do get stained, it’s important to act fast. Richard Handel, the project leader overseeing laundry product ratings at Consumer Reports, says that when it comes to treating self-tanner stains, follow the best practices below. 

    Blot the stain. Use plain white paper towels or a clean white cloth (cotton or microfiber—a dry cloth, unless otherwise noted) to dab up messes.

    Blot from the edges of the spill toward the center. Do the reverse and you may spread the stain.

    Check tags and labels for laundering information. “Dry clean only” means the washer may ruin the fabric or trim.

    Be very sparing with water when working on upholstery fabrics. That way, you’ll avoid ending up with a water-ring stain.

    After using a pretreat product on an item, it’s okay to launder it with other items. Trying bleach? Check that the other fabrics are colorfast. If in doubt, wash the stained item separately.

    When colorfastness is a concern, test your cleaner using a cotton swab. Do this in a small, unnoticeable area first.

    Avoid scratching hard surfaces. Use a nonabrasive scrubbing pad on stone countertops and other hard surfaces.

    Be patient. Don’t toss an item in the dryer until a stain is gone. Heat may lock it in.

    Headshot of CRO Author Laura Murphy (v3)

    Laura Murphy

    Just like you, I'm a consumer. I love to shop, and I'm obsessed with finding the highest-quality item at the best price. I want my products sustainably made with fair labor practices, and built to last, so I don't have to replace them every two years. I'm at Consumer Reports because I believe in harnessing consumer power to build a better world. Let's do this.