Article by: Perry Romanowski

Self tanning products are designed for people who want to darken the color of their skin without risking the negative health effects of UV exposure. Technology improvements in the purification of the main active ingredient and better awareness of the dangers of excessive UV exposure has led to an increase in the sales of these types of formulations

What self tanning formulas do

Self tanners are active cosmetic formulations that stain the outer layers of the skin and give it a more yellow/brown/orangish hue. They can be applied as a lotion or spritz and will slowly change skin color as the dye reacts with skin protein.

How do self tanning products work

The primary active ingredient that makes self-tanners work is Dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This is a white, crystalline powder whose skin staining effect was first discovered in the 1950’s.

DHA is a 3-carbon sugar that naturally forms a dimer. When heated in a solvent, the molecule can revert to a monomer which is more effective. The reaction that causes skin browning is the Maillard reaction in which the hydroxyl group on the DHA reacts with skin amino acids & proteins. It typically requires about an hour for the color change to be noticed.

The delivery of DHA is typically in the form of an oil-in-water emulsion similar to a skin lotion. Since the palms will stain darkest, consumers have to wash it off or wear gloves for application to prevent unnatural looking browning on the hands.

The color will wear off as the outer layers of the skin are naturally removed via exfoliation.

We should note that while there are some spray-on self tanning products, this use has not been approved by the FDA.

Below is an example of a typical self-tanning formula.  (Click to enlarge)

Click here for a complete list of the the Cosmetic Formulation Basics series.


About the Author

Perry Romanowski

Perry has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 1990’s. Additionally, he has written and edited numerous articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful websites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition published by Allured.


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    Hi! Can someone tell me where I can find the typical self-tanning formula? The image doesn’t seem to be working. Thanks!

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    Maria Victoria Sanchez

    hii!! does anyone have a self tanner mousse formulation??? thanksss 😀

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    Hi Perry! What’s the reason why the spray-on self tanning product is not approved by FDA ?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      DHA is a reactive product and the inhalation safety data has not been published by the CIR.

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    I am looking for a fake tan manufacturer to create my own product, can anyone help or make any recommendations?

    Thank you


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    Hi, please help!! We have a Spa in Portsmouth, and are looking into developing our own tan brand. Can you recommend a good company we can work with to create formulations and manufacturing for us. Please!!!
    Really Lost!! Not sure who to contact :((

    Big THANKS

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    Actually, I read about DHA, that they degrde @ temp higher than 40C. Do ou think its still advisable to heat DHA along with water phase?
    what are your thoughts on adding DHA-water solution once emulsion is complete around 40C ? Do you think it will be still as effective?

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      Every system is different so you’ll have to experiment with that formulating technique. It should work.

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    Hi Perry,

    I already make a tanning solution very similar to the formulation you have posted have you any tips or guidelines to making a tannin foam any help would be so greatly appreciated!!



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    Hi Perry, I have read many articles on DHA (from the supplier of DHA) that state final pH of your products needs to be in the 3.0 – 4.0, otherwise active does not work properly with your skin pH. Also the higher the pH of your final product, more discoloration of your lotion, and also your skin can become :orange. Your views on this? I have formulated two sunless tanners in the ph of 3.0 – 4.0 and do not have any issues when applied to the skin, nor do I have any stability issues.

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      If you have been able to produce a stable formula, then it sounds like you are on the right track.

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    Hi! Is it hard to conceive an idea of designing new product? I mean the ingredients etc 😉 Is it only for talented and genius people?

    1. Avatar

      It’s not hard but it does take research. Cosmetic formulating is a lot like cooking. You have to learn how to use the ingredients to make great products.

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