How Long Do Sunless Tans Last?

Concerns about the effects of ultraviolet rays on the skin have led to remarkable developments in sunless tanning. There are several different types of sunless tanners on the market today, from lotions and gels you apply yourself to more expensive spray-on tans at salons. While most of these will give a natural, healthy-looking tan, they do not all give you the base necessary to help prevent sunburn, so make sure you also use sunblock when spending time outdoors.

Creams, Lotions and Sprays

Most at-home tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. Nontoxic and noncarcinogenic, DHA is considered the most effective sunless tanning agent. Unlike stains or dyes, DHA reacts with the amino acids in the top layer of skin cells. DHA is sometimes combined with erythrulose, which works the same way DHA does, but more slowly.

A tan created by using a product containing DHA will last between three and 10 days. If the product contains both DHA and erythrulose, your tan will last slightly longer.

Sprayed and Airbrushed Tanners

Like the best at-home tanners, the spray-on and airbrush tans offered at salons, malls and beaches usually contain DHA and erythrulose. These self-tanners work best on clean, dry skin that has been thoroughly exfoliated. The thicker skin on the hands and feet will absorb more of the solution than other parts of the skin, so these areas should be covered with a thick lotion or be scrubbed well immediately after the application of the spray.

You should avoid showering, bathing or swimming for at least six to eight hours after a spray tan. If allowed to thoroughly dry and set, this type of self-tan will last up to 10 days.


Another alternative to sunbathing is bronzers. Available in sprays, lotions, mousses and powders, bronzers are a purely surface treatment, like makeup. They rarely last more than a few hours and most wash off with soap and water.


Most sunless tanners are perfectly safe, but it is a good idea to do a patch test before applying them to the entire body. Wash and dry a small portion of skin and apply the tanner. Let it set for 24 hours. If any itching, burning or rash occurs, do not use the product on the rest of your body.

Some sunless tanning products, both lotions and pills, contain canthaxanthin. This is a food additive used for coloring and it has not been approved for use as a self-tanner. It works by collecting in the layer of fat just under the skin and turning it brown. Side effects such as hepatitis and yellow deposits in the retina have been reported, as have problems with the skin and the digestive system. Read labels carefully and avoid any products containing canthaxanthin.


All tans--both sunless and natural--will fade over time. To maintain your sunless tan, avoid harsh soaps, shower gels with exfoliators and body lotions containing alcohol. Follow the product directions for refreshing your sunless tan because reapplying the spray, lotion or gel too often can result in an unnatural orange tint.