How do self tans work?

How do self tans work?

They’re the glow-giving staple of our beauty routines, but exactly how do self-tans work? Which ingredients help create the perfect (faux) sun-kissed hue – and how? And why do some fake tans smell so bad, or go an unnatural shade of orange?

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, now’s the time to face the fake tan facts. This article breaks down the science behind self-tanning products, and gives you all the info you need to start tanning like a pro. Don’t hit the (tanning) bottle without it!


What’s the tanning ingredient in self-tanning products?

The active ingredient in self-tanners and spray tans is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. A simple sugar, DHA is, in fact, colourless. However, when applied topically, it interacts with amino acids in the skin and a chemical reaction occurs. Brown compounds called melanoidins are produced, resulting in a permanent* darkening of the outer layer of the skin (stratum corneum).

Known as the maillard reaction, the gradual bronzing begins around 2 hours after applying self-tanner, and continues for 24-72 hours. (Yup, that’s up to 3 days, maths wizards!)

This browning phenomenon also occurs in the kitchen – giving foods like chargrilled steak and baked bread their distinctive colour and delicious flavour. However, don’t go getting ideas about nibbling on your fake-tanned arm ;)

Is DHA in tanning products natural?

Typically, the DHA used in self-tanners is synthetic. However, with consumers becoming increasingly concerned about chemicals in skincare, some manufacturers are going natural. Common sources of naturally-derived DHA include sugar beets and cane sugar.

As for Coco & Eve? In our Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam we’ve used natural tanning agents to create the world’s first 100% natural DHA self-tan body treatment with full skincare benefits! You’re welcome.

Why do self-tanners smell so funky?

Now you know what’s behind the tanning effect, you’re probably wondering what causes the strong biscuit smell of so many self-tanners. Unfortunately, it’s a not-so-pleasant by-product of the chemical reaction that progressively ‘tans’ your skin. Darker tans which contain more DHA will often pong more, and the degree to which you smell like baked goods will also depend on your own body chemistry. 

The good news? Clever use of fragrance can help counteract the telltale smell as your tan develops. In Sunny Honey, we use tropical mango and guava to completely neutralise any unwanted odours – and whisk you away to paradise!

Why do fake tans only last a week?

Remember when we said DHA causes a permanent darkening of the skin? It wasn’t a typo. So, if this is the case, why do self-tans only last around a week?

The answer lies in the skin’s natural turnover process. DHA alters the colour of the outer layer of skin only – the stratum corneum – which contains many layers of dead skin cells. As these cells are dislodged, either through the natural shedding process or exfoliation and hair removal, your tan effectively washes down the drain. Bye, tan, bye.


What causes an orange self-tan? 

Orange tans happen to the very best of us, and are caused both by incorrect usage and application, and dodgy tanning formulas. 

Since an Oompa Loompa tan is never a good look, there are a few things best avoided if you want a naturally bronzed complexion. For starters, avoid applying too much product at once, or too many layers of self-tanner, as this can result in an orange hue. Similarly, choosing a shade much darker than your skintone is a recipe for an orange-hued disaster. (Sunny Honey comes in 3 different shades – each formulated with the optimal amount of DHA for natural results for your skin ☺)

To prevent your tan from over-developing and turning orange, it’s important you also follow the directions and rinse off when instructed. Longer is not always better. And neither is darker if it’s not a colour born in nature!

As for your tanning formula, bypass those with low-grade ingredients to avoid an artificial looking hue. And thinking green is always a good idea. A green-grey base, like that in our Bali Bronzing Foam, is your best bet to cancel out even the slightest hint of orange tones!

Do self-tans provide sun protection?

The answer is a resounding, ‘No!’ While fake tans are undoubtedly safer than spending time outdoors sunbaking, never be fooled into thinking your faux glow provides protection. It doesn’t and you should be as vigilant with sun protection as ever!  

Tanned & Tested

Don’t just take our word for it, take a look at these real results from real people! 


Being German and Irish my skin never tanned easily. As I got older, I realised If I want to be tan it’s not happening naturally! That’s when I turned to self tanners for a healthy alternative to the sun. I like adding variety to my appearance by creating different looks and Sunny Honey does exactly that. ✨


I used @cocoandeve #sunnyhoney dark self tanner today for the first time and obsessed is an understatement. i’ve never used a self tanner that smells AMAZING but goes on without any streaks!! & don’t forget about them being cruelty and gluten free! Ditch the orange, go tan!!

Want more tanning tips and tricks? Check out our blog on 7 Self-Tanning Fails… And How to Avoid Them!

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Customer tan-formations

This was my first time ever self tanning and I had the best first experience thanks to this tan! I was scared at first, but this tan really did wonders for me! As someone who burns easily in the sun, this is the perfect damage-free solution to tan!
This is the best fake tan I have ever worn. I've tried all of the popular ones like St. Tropez, but this is a cut above the rest! No orange tone and it wears away slowly and evenly.
FINALLY! I have a tan which is actually good for my skin and doesn't contain all the nasty, awful chemicals. It gave a really nice olive colour on my skin. I've never had so many compliments!
I've always avoided fake tan as my skin is very dry and sensitive. I tried Coco & Eve and my skin felt sooo nourished, smelt unreal and I didn't have any dry patches where my fake tan would usually cling to.
Sunny Honey gave me the most beautiful tan and perfected imperfections & cellulite on my legs. I loved using the kabuki brush on my feet and hands to ensure an even application. Zero complaints from me!
This was my first time using fake tan, all my fears of a fake tan disaster have disappeared. Bye bye milk bottles, hello bronzed pins!
Lexington Hartman
I have never used fake tan before and was nervous that I would be all orange and streaky but this looked so natural and I didn't get any streaks thanks to the awesome mitt and brush!! The smell is INCRED!
Madina Shrienzada
Obsessed with how perfectly golden this leaves my skin! Best part: this is the WORLDS FIRST fake tan formula to help reduce cellulite AND have anti aging
It smells sooo good and tropical! I like how this doesn’t apply super dark and develops over the 2 hours you have to wait before washing it off! The mitt is EVERYTHING! I’m obsessed with this and it wasn’t too dark, just enough to make me not as pale!!
I am an avid fan on fake tan and have been using it for years. Trust me when I say I have tried almost every self tan under the sun (pardon the pun). Now that I've used the Coco & Eve self tan I won't go back to any others! The colour is divine, not orange at all, sooo natural and dark (I buy the ultra dark and it's the deepest one I've ever found). No patches or streaks either! And OMG the scent too! It's an absolute god send. Please never change Coco & Eve!
My skin can get dull and dry so I was impressed at the glowy results of this fake tan!! It deeply hydrates my skin, making it extraaa soft. It is so easy to apply making me a golden goddess. This tan is great for Brown girls too!
I've always avoided fake tan as I have very dry sensitive skin and i've had a few bad experiences with patchy colour. I tried Coco & Eve fake tan and my skin felt sooooooo moisturised it was unreal. No patches where i had dry skin, no bad smell and no orange mess!

Real Reviews


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